Darnell Smith thought his college football career was just beginning in 2009 when he sat down with his coach at Trinity Valley Community College.
What Smith heard that day, after spending just a few months at the school, changed the course of his life.
“After my first semester, the coach there told me I was too slow and let me go,” Smith said. “It hurt me so bad. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
That day was the first of several over the last few years that made Smith question his football future, which suddenly looks a lot brighter following North Texas’ loss to Arkansas State last week.
The former South Garland standout fought and scratched his way through two junior colleges and the walk-on program at UNT, earned a role with the Mean Green and finally got his shot to shine against the Red Wolves.
Smith took full advantage of his opportunity while catching seven passes for 107 yards to pace UNT’s depleted offense that desperately needed someone to step forward. The Mean Green was without one of its top playmakers in Brelan Chancellor, not to mention another key member of its receiving corps in Derrick Teegarden. Both are out for the year with injuries.
“No one had any expectations for him,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said of Smith. “For him to come in and be that kind of story and all of the sudden — at a Division I school in a game against a defending conference champion — have more than 100 receiving yards shows that it goes right back to work ethic and what he puts into it.”
Smith’s coaches and teammates say that he has put everything into finding a place where he can contribute.
McCarney said there might not be a player on UNT’s roster who watches more film than Smith, who is always holed up in an office somewhere with a remote in his hand.
Smith didn’t have much choice if he wanted to earn a role after arriving at UNT, which had several players ahead of him on the depth chart. Those players knew the Mean Green’s offense inside and out heading into fall practice after spending months learning the system.
“In two-a-days, he didn’t know the offense very well,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said of Smith. “He was literally in the office with the coaches sometimes until 10 at night trying to get it down. He’s not perfect and makes mistakes, but the excitement he brings to our offense is crucial. If we had more guys like him, it would be really helpful.”
Thompson said Smith is just as excited when he catches a 2-yard pass as he is when he catches one that covers 41 yards, like he did two weeks ago in a loss to Middle Tennessee.
Smith has caught nine passes for 183 yards the last two weeks, pushing his season totals to 14 receptions for 235 yards.
“You always need a few guys like that out there that when they make a play, they get excited,” Thompson said. “You can feed off that.”
Smith can’t help but be excited about the situation he is in now after following an unconventional path to UNT.
Smith was seemingly out of options when he was let go at Trinity Valley and turned to his high school coaches and his family for guidance.
Smith landed at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, which is 761 miles from Garland and about as far from home and family as a former Texas high school standout could get. The Canadian border is closer to Ellsworth than Denton.
“Ellsworth, Iowa, isn’t the end of the world, but you sure as hell can see it from there,” said McCarney, who played and coached at Iowa before serving as Iowa State’s head coach for 12 years.
Smith stuck with it at Ellsworth anyway, even after it looked like he wouldn’t get many opportunities to play. It wasn’t until late in his sophomore season that Smith got his big break.
“When I got up there, they had a star receiver,” Smith said. “He got into some trouble with off-the-field issues. I had to step up.”
Smith caught 36 passes for 435 yards in eight games, a performance that opened up opportunities at Abilene Christian, a Division II school that offered him a full scholarship, and Angelo State, another Lone Star Conference school that offered a partial scholarship.
Smith likely would have ended up at one of those schools had it not been for a friendship he struck up years before with UNT offensive lineman LaChris Anyiam.
Smith and Anyiam played on the Texas team in the 2009 Oil Bowl, a game that pits some of the top players in Texas against a team of standouts from Oklahoma.
Anyiam helped Smith get in contact with UNT offensive line coach Mike Simmonds while Smith was in Iowa.
Smith sent a highlight tape of his sophomore season at Ellsworth to UNT and was offered a spot as a walk-on, one he accepted over the scholarship at ACU largely to be closer to home.
McCarney said the typical roles in recruiting were reversed when it came to Smith, who sold UNT’s coaches on giving him a chance, instead of the staff recruiting him.
“It was important to play Division I, but it was mainly that I wanted to come home,” Smith said of his reasons for walking on at UNT. “I had been in Iowa so long. My mom says that things tend to go wrong when I’m not there.”
Smith has a younger brother and mentors him and his friends, whom he trains in the offseason. He also is close to his mother, Anita Smith.
Smith immediately fit in at UNT, where he found comfort in knowing he could get home if he needed to in a matter of minutes.
“Everyone on this team loves him,” McCarney said. “How could you not? He comes out every day with a smile on his face, ready to be coached and ready to practice.”
At 6-1, Smith has good size for a wide receiver, but he lacks top-end speed and quickness.
Smith showed UNT’s coaches that he could overcome those issues, but once again was in a precarious position heading into the fall semester.
Smith has had to take out loans to pay for tuition and expenses throughout his college career and was quickly running out of options. He was considering taking a semester off from school when McCarney had him stand in front of the team in August.
“We found out how much respect he has gained over a short period of time when I brought him up in front of the team before this semester to award him a scholarship and the roof about came off that building,” McCarney said of the Mean Green Athletic Center. “[The cheers] literally shook the room.”
That scholarship changed the course of Smith’s life.
“That was great for me and my family,” Smith said. “Myself and my family didn’t know how much it actually cost to go to school here. We were having trouble paying for it, and I was up on all my loans. I don’t know what I would have done. I would have had to sit out a semester. I couldn’t have afforded it.”
Now Smith is a player UNT can’t afford to lose in a year it is dealing with so many injuries.
“He will come out with even more confidence now with what he did last week,” McCarney said. “With Chancellor and Teegarden out of the lineup the rest of the year, he responded to the challenge.”
Responding to challenges is something Smith has always done while seeking out his next opportunity, even when it looked like there might not be one coming.
“I’m here to make the most of my opportunity,” Smith said of his time at UNT. “Anytime I get a chance to step up, I’m going to make that play. Whatever I can do to help us win, that’s what I’m going to do, because I love being here so much.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .