Most Valuable Player: How DeVonta Smith stumbled into the Heisman

The small-town wide receiver was an unlikely pick. But he won’t let the fanfare get to his head.

DeVonta Smith woke up at 6 a.m. on a brisk January Tuesday, hit the Mal Moore Athletic Facility, worked with trainers, ate breakfast, practiced with his teammates and watched film. 

It was just a normal day. A normal day to win the Heisman.

The history of college football has been defined by two major crowning achievements every year: the National Championship and the Heisman Trophy. From household names like Tim Tebow to small-town stars like Derrick Henry, the Heisman defines the best player from college football every year. 

For many of the recipients, winning the Heisman is the defining moment in their career, but for senior wide receiver Smith, it’s all about “looking onto Ohio State.”

The 2020-21 season had been anything but consistent. Players from schools around the country opted out of playing, and the largest conferences of college football postponed their seasons due to COVID-19. But one thing remained fairly certain: Alabama would bring home the Heisman Trophy. From the season’s start to finish, Alabama had at least one player on the Heisman watch list. The final four finalists were announced Christmas Eve, and Smith and Alabama junior quarterback Mac Jones made the cut.

Alabama football press conferences were strictly business, even when it came to Heisman prospects. Smith nor Jones ever brought up the award without it being asked of them. 

“Right now I’m not really worried about the Heisman Trophy,” Smith said to a reporter the day before the ceremony. “I’m just trying to come in with the team this weekend, just look forward to getting on to the game plan for Ohio State.” 

When asked why he and his teammates always put the team first, Smith gave a straightforward answer.

“You’re not out there playing by yourself,” Smith said. “With team success comes individual success. If the team is doing good, then everybody is doing good, and that’s what it all comes down to.” 

The award ceremony, presented by ESPN, was exactly how Smith is described by most: quiet. Due to COVID-19, the ceremony was virtual, but Smith, Jones and coach Nick Saban were present in person in Tuscaloosa. Smith’s overall message conveyed perseverance and determination.

“Just to all the young kids out there that’s not the biggest, not the strongest, just keep pushing because I’m not the biggest,” Smith said during his acceptance speech on ESPN. “I’ve been doubted a lot just because of my size, and really it just comes down to: You put your mind to it, you can do it. No job is too big. If you put your mind to it, you can do it, and just keep believing in God, and you’ll get where you want to be.” 

Smith surely showed that same grit on the field. This season he caught 105 passes and tallied 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns. Smith led the nation in all three of those categories. He also set milestones both in the SEC and at Alabama. Smith holds the Alabama career records for receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and is 10 yards away of breaking the conference record for career receiving yards.

Smith is the Crimson Tide’s third-ever Heisman winner, joining Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015). Alabama is the only school in the 21st century to have a non-quarterback win the Heisman.

After the ceremony, Smith dedicated his achievements to the culture and foundation that Saban and Alabama have built over the past 14 years.

“It’s just a family,” Smith said. “Just when you got here, everyone was on the same mission to become the best player that they can be and everybody helped each other in a different way, and just being around those guys, they’ve taught me so much just from things on the field to off the field, and they’ve just guided me to where I am today, and I’m so thankful for them.”

Smith went on to say that he never even thought about winning the Heisman, and when they announced it on the broadcast he “blanked out.”  

“I’ve had conversations, seen people send me things about it and I kind of brushed it off,” Smith said. “I never sat up there and honestly just thought about, ‘I could possibly win it.’”

Smith has stated countless times that winning the Heisman was never his goal. There were two things he sought out to achieve by the end of his career at Alabama: his degree and a National Championship title. 

Smith is aware that the main part of being in a lead role at Alabama is the stardom. But the Amite, Louisiana, native likes his small-town lifestyle and prefers  to go under the radar.

“I kind of like just being out of the way,” Smith said. “I’m not the most vocal person. I don’t like talking that much. So it was kind of enjoyable while it lasted. Now things, I have to talk more. I mean, I’m getting used to it now. I’m getting better at it, and I enjoy it.”

Smith said winning the top honor in college football will not change his dedication or workload.

“Just remain humble and just keep doing things the way I’m doing it,” Smith said. “If I just keep doing things the way that I’ve been doing it, it got me here and it’s going to keep me going.”