The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
PORT NECHES – Whirlwind doesn’t even come close to describing how A.J. Smith’s season has gone this year.
Three weeks ago, he was the starting quarterback for the Port Neches-Groves football team.
Two weeks ago, he switched to receiver full time and took his place in the starting lineup there.
Last week, he played a quarter at his new position before having to go back in at QB after sophomore Ky Walker broke his thumb on the game’s third play.
“Ky came up to me and showed me his thumb, so I thought, ‘I guess I’m going in,’” Smith said. “I just calmed down and did what I had to do for my team to win. That’s what guys have to do as a leader on a team. You have to step up and take care of what’s needed.”
Smith tapped into his prodigious potential after replacing Walker, running and passing PN-G past Lumberton for the Indians’ second victory over the season. Smith completed 10 of 13 passes for 106 yards and a TD, while rushing for 97 yards on 15 carries and adding three more TDs on the ground.
“A.J. went in and really did well,” PN-G head coach Brandon Faircloth said. “He thought I was kidding when I told him he was going in at quarterback. He came in and scored three touchdowns. He had a good night. He came in and just played out of his mind.”
How did he get here?
Smith was the primary backup for starter Travis Miller last season. He came into spring camp as the unquestioned starter at QB, but Walker quickly caught him this fall and forced himself into the lineup.
“(Ky and A.J.) are both great kids,” Faircloth said. “They both reacted the same way. If Ky’s in at quarterback, A.J. goes out to receiver. They have a great relationship and they realize they’re not in competition. We like to think of it as a complement. One of the reasons why Ky got moved into the quarterback spot is that A.J. could help us at other areas. Ky showed us he could play QB and I know A.J. can play receiver. They’ve been nothing but great.”
The two split series against both West Orange-Stark and Summer Creek. That time share can make it hard for either player to get into a rhythm, but Smith has embraced his role as one of this team’s leaders and made the transition for the good of the team.
“It was kind of frustrating,” Smith said. “But, since we had some players quit and I had to fill in at wide receiver, I was just willing to do whatever for my team. I had to show them that you can’t be down about that, you have to go out and do whatever you can on Friday nights. We’re definitely coming together. We’ve never gotten down as a team. We’re hungry and want to get that district championship.”
Against Lumberton, Smith played with more confidence and poise, completing over 55 percent of his passes for the first time this season. Passing efficiency is a big part of this offense and Smith made every throw he could, even finding Jeremiah Rose on a fade route at the end of the first half.
“He took care of the ball and got first downs when we needed it,” Faircloth said. “He really had a lot of confidence out there. He made all the throws we asked him to and really moved the ball well on offense.”
For Smith, he said the quick change back into his old position meant he didn’t have as much time to think about things.
“I didn’t have time to think about it,” Smith said. “I ran through the plays, went through the motions and didn’t have time to think. So, I just did. It felt good. Hopefully, we can go out Friday and continue that success.”
The sneaky story about last Friday’s win, however, is how good Smith looked at receiver. Though he only played enough to catch one pass for 10 yards, it was a doozy. Smith went up for the pass and made a one-handed grab that looked easy.
“I was getting used to (receiver),” Smith said. “With that bye week, I was starting to practice more there and really getting a feel for the position. It was like going up for a rebound, something like that. You don’t usually get hit after the fact, but other than that, it’s the same.”
As a quarterback, Smith also has a bit of an advantage through his family. His grandfather is Memorial defensive backs coach Joe Smith. A.J. said the situation is different since they’re at different schools, but that his grandfather has always been supportive of him.
“It can seem weird from the outside,” Smith said. “But, he calls me every week and shows me the love that a grandfather should. It’s nothing different, he’s just at another school. He does help me out with coverages. Plus, he always plays Ozen and Central, so he lets me know about them, too.”
Support is also a word that extends to the quarterback group at PN-G this season. There hasn’t been a controversy so far over who’s playing at the position, and that’s a testament to both Smith’s leadership and how close that QB group including Walker and Faircloth, who coaches the quarterbacks, has been.
“A.J. is not concerned with praise or notoriety, he just wants to win,” Faircloth said. “That’s how you win games, with a bunch of guys like that. He’s 100 percent effort all the time. He never changes. He’s been that way since I got here.
“It starts at the top. I have to provide that atmosphere that it’s not a competition. We have to learn that we’re all here together in the meetings and all the time. It’s almost like golf. It’s not against each other, everyone is doing his own thing and we’ll see which one is the best fit for our team.”
INDIAN INKLINGS: The son of Jason and Karima Rice, A.J. has a scholarship offer from Lamar, but is focused more on finishing this season before he considers his college opportunities. He’s also mulling a wide list of future careers, including sports medicine and business. … Walker broke his thumb on the game’s third play, but did not tell his coaches until later in the quarter. The expected recovery time for the injury is 4-6 weeks. … The Indians have not yet had anyone top 100 rushing yards in a game. Smith came closest, gaining 97 yards last week against Lumberton. … Tight end/H-back Tim Clopton saw time running back against Lumberton. The senior was very effective in limited time, gaining 48 yards on seven carries. Because of that, the Indians will try to work him into the game plan more. … Last week’s victory over Lumberton marked the first time since 2009 that the Indians have opened 20-4A play with a win. That season, PN-G beat Little Cypress-Mauriceville 27-20 on its way to a perfect 7-0 mark in district play.
Five Questions with A.J. Smith
What’s your favorite food? Seafood
What’s your favorite color? Purple
What’s your favorite movie? Air Bud
What’s your favorite video game? NCAA Football ‘13
Future city you want to live in: Dallas