From Brooklet to Tuscaloosa, from Southeast Bulloch High School to the University of Alabama, offensive lineman Justin Smiley has made his mark.
After appearing as one of the players gracing the cover of the 1999 edition of WTOC's Inside High School Football, Smiley made the decision to take his considerable size and talent to play for the Crimson Tide.
Smiley is entering his Junior season at Alabama as one of the Crimson Tide's team captains. This is a special honor, one he has earned by not only his play on the field, but also what he has had to endure off it. "It's a really special thing (being captain)... out in our quad they put our imprints... all the captains since 1930. And just to know that I left my imprint on the place in overwhelming."
But his arrival on campus in 2000 caused controversy. He was driving a new truck his parents bought for him, and that started an NCAA investigation. Smiley was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing and his career was about to blossom.
Since then, Smiley's play as gotten better and better on the field, being named to the All-SEC team last season and is a pre-season All-America this season. But, he has played for 4 head coaches, three of them in the last 6 months.
The recent coaching changes began at the end of the 2002 season. As the Tide rolled from their final game in Hawaii, Smiley sat next to Coach Dennis Franchione, "There had been a some rumors around and I asked Coach Fran is there any truth behind the rumors. He looked me in the eye and said there's no substance to them. When we got back, we saw him on Birmingham news landing in College Station wearing his Texas A & M hat. That was just a knife in the heart, man."
So, after Franchione made his move to Texas A & M... Alabama hired Mike Price from Washington State. Four Months later, a scandal involving strippers cost Price his job before he had ever coached a game in Tuscaloosa, "It was hard for me to believe a lot of it. A lot of it was pretty racy. Sports Illustrated... you're familiar with all that. But, I really liked Coach Price and I had a lot of respect for him."
Since being let go, Price has filed a pair of $20-million lawsuits, one against Sports Illustrated and the other against the university for wrongful termination.
In the short period of time Price was at Alabama... Smiley thought he had made some great changes in the Tide's offense. "(Before he arrived) we could run the ball... we knew what we were doing. But we lacked in the pass protection. That's what we needed to work on. This coaching staff came in and that's what they do. They pass to set up the run which is totally opposite of what we've been doing."
Now, Smiley thinks Alabama is finally on the right road with the hiring of Mike Shula as the Tide's third head coach in the last six months. "I think he brings something to the table. He brings that Miami Dolphin offense... kinda pro style which is good for a couple of our offensive linemen that look to play at the next level."
One of those players, of course, is Smiley. He doesn't like to see Coach Shula criticized, even before he begins his career at Alabama, "We have a lot of naysayers. There's always going to be critics out there. A lot of opposing SEC coaches say I don't know how they can get the new offense in. We've been working hard... my nose has been in the playbook since day one the new coaches have gotten here. I know the offense. That's what we've done... we've taken it upon ourselves to learn the new offense and when South Florida comes to Birmingham... we're going to be ready."
Meanwhile... Smiley continues to prepare for the 2003 season at Alabama. He knows the Crimson Tide will be on probation for a final season, but he remains optimistic at the prospects of a successful season. He knows the team is working hard in preparing for the new season, "The weight room is something I take a lot of pride in. Not only being strong... and every guy wants to be strong. It's playing SEC ball and trying to become an All-America and All-SEC and stuff like that. You have to prepare your body... your joints... your knees. I've taken a lot of blows... gotten my knees twisted up under a pile that would have torn someone's ACL... but because I have strong tendons... just because I do heavy squats... and work hard in the weight room. This weight room has prepared my body for the trench play in the SEC."
In the SEC... you're playing against the best week after week. Being in top physical shape can give a player the mental edge. "When I look across the line... to know I'm the best one in shape and I'm the most prepared... and that's what I think about going into the season...conditioning and working out."
Smiley is ranked among the top offensive linemen in the nation by some NFL scouts, but not necessarily at the guard position that has made him an All- America, "I've been told by numerous different scouts that body wise I'm a prototype center... 6-3... 305... and run in the 4.8's (for the 40 yard dash). In the NFL they like to pull the center. They use the centers a lot more than the guards. A couple of (scouting) boards have me as the number one center prospect this season... and I don't even play center, yet. I'm going to play some center this season and get 5 or 6 snaps a game to get my feet wet where I can kind of understand the position."
Would he consider leaving school before his senior season in order to enjoy a big payday, "What I tell people right now is that it's all Alabama I'm focused on... winning 13 games this season for Alabama and just helping them out. But, after this season, and I'm going to play these 13 games as hard as I can and leave it all on the field... if it's the best thing for me then I'll possibly pursue the NFL after this season."
Looking back on all the turmoil, Smiley says he wouldn't make a different decision about where to go to school, "I don't second guess myself because God led me there for a reason and I made an impact on that place."