By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State has been lacking a deep threat at wide receiver this season, which means the passing game hasn’t been as vertical as some hoped. But Chris Smith has been doing his best lately to fill that void.
The senior from Meridian, who in his first three seasons was more of a possession receiver known for his toughness and good hands, has suddenly become a downfield option for quarterback Tyler Russell. Over his last two games, Smith has made 10 catches for 139 yards, an average of 13.9 yards per catch.
He’s averaging 12.6 yards a catch (29 for 366) this fall. That’s well above his career average of 9.9 yards entering the season.
Prior to this year, Smith’s career long catch was 24 yards. He’s had three longer than that this season: A 45-yarder at Troy, and then a 28-yarder and 31-yarder at Alabama last week.
The two at Bama put MSU into the red zone. His third catch, a 14-yarder, came on a play when Russell was flushed out of the pocket and had to make a long throw to the sideline. Smith had to break off a corner route to bail out Russell.
“He got rid of it real quick. I had to come back to it,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a great throw, but it was good enough for me to catch the ball.”
Catching the ball is something Smith has always been good at, and he’s come through in plenty of big situations this year.
According to cfbstats.com, Smith is averaging 26.2 on five catches when it’s third down and 10 or more yards. Of his 29 catches, 16 have given MSU a first down.
He has one of the best sets of hands on the team, and all his catches against Alabama were tough grabs on the sideline.
So why the sudden big-play ability?
“It all depends on what defenses give us,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “If they’re going to bracket and roll safeties on top of them and double-team Chris down the field, then he’s not going to be much of a threat. If they leave him one-on-one, he has the opportunity to be.”
Entering the season, coaches hoped to have more downfield options, namely in the form of 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Joe Morrow, who’s been banged up and struggled to get on track.
Morrow has four catches for 40 yards.
Another big-play threat, tight end Malcolm Johnson, missed the first five games with injury. So Smith’s emergence is big for the offense.
“We needed to have a deep downfield threat, and we’ve had it in a couple of games,” Russell said. “It’s worked out good for us.”
Russell and Smith were teammates at Meridian, so they’ve been doing this for a long time. There’s a mutual trust there, and that’s been beneficial when Russell needs a play downfield or when he’s scrambling and looking for an open receiver.
“It’s not like a connection, it’s me being where I’m supposed to be at and the right time,” Smith said. “Tyler sees that, he sees that advantage, so he gets it to me.”