KNOXVILLE — Their college careers complete, most big-time football players turn their focus toward training for the NFL, whether expecting to be picked in May's draft or aiming for a free-agent deal and a mini-training camp.
Former Ooltewah High School standout and now former Tennessee defensive end Jacques Smith has his eye on another date in early May.
"Plan A has been 18 hours here at the university finishing my degree," Smith told the Times Free Press after the Volunteers' pro day Wednesday. "My goal is May 5th to be done with my degree. Then Plan B is to look forward to the draft that comes May 8th that weekend and hope for the best.
"I've been training really hard as well as studying really hard and trying to make the most of two opportunities that are at hand right now."
As much as the 6-foot-2, 258-pound Smith has focused on adding strength and bulk to his frame in hopes of playing on the line at the next level, the 12 credit hours in 400-level economics and six hours in what he called "intensive" Spanish courses have taken up much of his time.
It's still a demanding routine, though now, with his team responsibilities no longer present, Smith is mostly on his own in balancing the two goals toward which he's currently striving.
"It just makes you see the difference between college and being a pro," Smith said. "I guess I'm still an amateur, but you've got to be disciplined, to go in every day, to come in every day at your own will. Nobody's telling you not to work out, or to work out, or to give effort or anything, or to do this or run or stretch.
"[Vols strength] Coach [Dave] Lawson, he gave me the tools, but he didn't force me to do it. He's gotten me along the way of training for this process, but he didn't make me or force me, and that's the difference.
"It's all about your want-to, your self-want. How bad do you want it? I want it pretty bad, not just for myself but for my family and all the fans that have supported me back at home."
The former four-star recruit committed to Tennessee more than a year before he began his career with the Vols in January 2010, and after a four-year career that Smith readily admitted didn't go as well as he'd hoped, it's very possible he'll have to earn his way to the NFL the free-agent way.
At the pro day, Smith showed he still possesses some of the athletic ability that made him a touted recruit coming out of high school. His 10-foot, 7-inch broad jump was the best among former Vols to test in that drill, and only tailback Rajion Neal (38 inches) beat Smith's 36.5-inch vertical jump.
After his workout, Smith, who could play outside linebacker as a pro, spoke at length with a representative from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Should professional football not work out for him, he has aspirations to remain involved in the same kind of community work that was part of his Tennessee career. The desire to help others less fortunate or those who "were just like me growing up, that need the right direction to go" stems from his own upbringing.
"There's so many things in life that can benefit you if you just shut up and listen," Smith continued. "Listening and just observing here, it's brought me a long ways. I've done it my whole entire life, and I'm just going to continue to learn and learn and learn and let the Lord put words and people into my life that can change it for the better."
Smith lived with six other family members -- his mother, Stacey, both of his grandparents, sisters Clarissa and Rose and a cousin -- until he was 9 years old. When his grandfather died, he was the only male and worked on his grandfather's janitorial service after school and sports. His family moved often.
While his mother worked multiple jobs to support the family, Smith's father was in prison for parts of his childhood, and he lived with some family friends away from his mother and grandmother at one point.
Before he first went out for football in the seventh grade, Smith wrestled, but he joked that he "barely made that team." The only reason Smith started playing football -- "I was a fatty growing up," he quipped -- was because a bunch of his friends did so.
From there, Smith credited his coaches, namely Doug Greene, Benny Monroe and Ted Gatewood, for helping him "envision" a future in college and a degree and for being a "big part" in "mentoring" him during his Tennessee career.
"They brought me and made me up into a man," he said. "That's what gave me that drive to continue to work and work and not worry about the results and just know that in time God will give the blessing that I deserve, whether it be the NFL or getting a degree or being a father or being whatever in life. I'm just really excited just being here and being blessed.
"It's a blessing just to go through this whole entire process of being a Vol and now being a VFL."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...