This is the third in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020. From 1946-2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.
(Andre Smith became Alabama’s second Outland Trophy recipient when he anchored the offensive line of a 12-2 Alabama team that lost in the SEC title game to Florida and fell to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. He then was selected No. 6 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Besides the Bengals, Smith has played for Minnesota, Arizona and will suit up for a third season for Baltimore this coming fall.)
By Gene Duffey, Author
Andre Smith’s career at running back could best be described as brief.
He first played football in fifth grade for the Pinson Valley Youth Club in Birmingham, Alabama. He played in the Unlimited Division, facing guys two and three years older. Because of his size, even at that age, Smith was destined to be a lineman. “I was bigger than most people,” he said. “I took it as a positive.”
Smith played for championship teams in Youth leagues and Little League. During one blowout win, he lined up at running back.
“I carried the ball one time and I fumbled,” he remembered. “They had the scrubs in (on the line). I got hit really hard.”
Back to the line.
Smith did well on the defensive line. He collected several quarterback hurries and tackles for losses. But it never quite felt like home.
“I liked offense way more,” he said. “With offense you have the element of surprise.”
Smith helped his middle school teams win titles in seventh and eighth grade, but didn’t get carried away with the success. “I just sat back and chilled,” he said.
When he started on the offensive line as a freshman at Huffman High School in Birmingham college coaches started to notice.
Huffman Coach Curtis Coleman soon began hearing from the recruiters.
“College coaches thought I was a senior when I was a freshman,” said Smith. “They would inquire about me.”
“He’s just a stinking freshman,” Coleman told them.
Huffman won a key game against J.O. Johnson High School in September 2004, Smith’s junior year. Smith literally knocked over the opposition, credited with 18 pancake blocks.
The game was played two days after Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama, the year before Katrina devastated New Orleans. The hurricane hit Gulf Shores, Alabama as a Category 3. Twenty-five people in the U.S. were killed and total damage was estimated at over $14 billion.
Smith received only modest reviews from the people who count the most. “My coaches told me, ‘Great game,’” he recalled. “That was it. I guess they didn’t want it going to my head.”
Huffman’s teams never enjoyed the type of success that Smith achieved in youth football and middle school. Huffman went 6-5 his freshman year, 7-4 as a sophomore and 6-5 again his junior and senior seasons.
Smith’s team received more notoriety in basketball. Huffman reached the state finals with a team that included Stanley Robinson, who was on his way to Connecticut, and Demant Jimerson, who played basketball at Alabama.
Nationally, everyone knew Andre Smith, the football player. A 6-foot-4, 325-pound high school offensive lineman became extremely popular.
Rivals.com rated him the fourth best prospect in the country in 2006, ahead of such future starts as Clemson’s C.J. Spiller and Florida’s Tim Tebow.
Everyone in the state of Alabama must take sides. You have to root for the Auburn Tigers or the Crimson Tide. Smith was more of an Auburn fan, particularly in 2004.
Coach Tommy Tuberville’s Tigers ripped through the ’04 season undefeated, beating Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game and edging Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to earn a No. 2 national ranking, behind only USC.
Despite the excitement of Auburn’s perfect season in Smith’s junior year of high school, he approached recruiting with an open mind.
“I was 50/50 when (Auburn) played Alabama,” he admitted.
Smith’s parents helped Andre, the oldest of four children, with recruiting.
Andre Sr., who played defensive end and tight end in high school, owned his own business. His mother worked for the government. They stressed education.
“My Mom and Dad handled everything,” he said of the recruiting process. “I didn’t have to talk to coaches every night.”
Smith made official visits to Florida, LSU, Miami (Florida) and USC, as well as Alabama.
He flew to Los Angeles to see Pete Carroll’s Trojans for his first visit. “I wanted to commit to USC right then,” he said. “It was so different. My Mom said, ‘No. You have to make your other visits.’ ”
He eventually decided that USC was too far from home and would cost his parents too much to fly to Los Angeles to see him play.
Smith continued to be popular with SEC schools. One day LSU’s Les Miles, Florida’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Mike Shula were outside Smith’s house, waiting to talk with him.
“Rumors had it that I was already going to Alabama, so they kind of backed off, which I understood,” Smith said of LSU and Miami.
Alabama was coming off a 10-2 season in 2005, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech. Tuscaloosa was only an hour away from Birmingham and Smith liked Shula.
“Coach Shula was a great guy,” he said. “We had a little connection. The same day I signed, he had his second daughter. He said he got two gifts in one day.”
Antoine Caldwell, another offensive lineman, was Smith’s host on his official visit to Alabama.
Caldwell, who went on to be a third-round pick by the Houston Texans, did his homework on recruits.
“I had watched film on him,” Caldwell said of Smith. “I knew he would be something else. He was dominating, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do when you’re that big. He was so quiet. He didn’t want to do anything. Real soft-spoken.”
The nice guy personality that Smith projected belied his fierceness in football.
“You have to be a different person for the position of offensive line,” he said. “You have to have that mean streak in you, or your quarterback is going to get hit, or your running back is going to get hit. I was always a competitor.”
Smith quickly broke into the starting lineup at Alabama. By the third day of camp he became the starting left tackle. “It was a little surprising they threw me in the fire so fast,” he said. “I adjusted really well. At least that’s what they told me.”
He knew everyone was watching. Being the most high-profile recruit in the class from a nearby city, people wanted to know if he had the talent to match the hype. There were doubters.
“Am I going to be a ‘bust?’ ” Smith knew people were thinking. “That’s the devil trying to play with you. Am I going to be an embarrassment to the university?”
Alabama opened the 2006 season at home against Hawaii and won by a mere 25-17, a harbinger of the problems ahead for Shula. Smith was headed in the right direction, the Tide wasn’t.
“I did really well,” Smith said of his game against Hawaii. “I didn’t give up a sack. I was going against a defensive end (Ikaika Alama-Francis) who got drafted in the second round. You were going against guys just as big and just as strong as you are. After the first two plays I knew I was going to be all right.”
Caldwell started at center with Smith at left tackle.
“From the day he showed up, he was an incredible athlete,” said Caldwell. “Watching him grow up was awesome to see. To be that big. He was overweight when he came in–345, 350. He worked his tail off and got down to around 330. It was amazing seeing him work every day. He had real nimble feet for a guy that size. He was unbelievable. He was the best offensive lineman I’d ever been around, ever played with, ever seen at the college level.
“We were real close. We spent a lot of time together. He was a normal, mild-mannered guy. He really didn’t talk too much. When we got together, we had a great time. He’d go out, hang out some. Never a trouble maker. He was one of the best kids I’ve been around.”
Smith was doing very well for a true freshman. Alabama wasn’t. After winning its first three games, the ship began to sink. The Tide finished 6-6 in the regular season and 2-6 in conference play.
The year ended with a loss to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl. So did Mike Shula’s career as coach at Alabama.
Shula’s dismissal saddened Smith. But better times were ahead when Alabama turned to Nick Saban.
“I was really happy Coach Saban got the job,” said Smith. “That’s the best thing that happened to me as far as football. He’s just so passionate about the game. At first things were different. He just demanded the best. (The offense) wasn’t that much of a change.”
That first season under Saban proved to be a bit choppy. Alabama finished with four straight losses, including a shocker to Louisiana-Monroe at home. At least the Tide won the Independence Bowl this time, beating Colorado.
The following spring Smith could see something good beginning to happen.
“We felt like we were going to be really successful,” he said. “Since then everything was roses.”
Smith was right. Alabama went 12-0 in the regular season, ending its six-game losing streak against hated Auburn with a resounding 36-0 victory.
Alabama boasted maybe the best offensive line in the country. Joining Smith and Caldwell were guard Michael Johnson, drafted by Atlanta in the third round in 2010, and Marlon Davis, who spent time in the New York Jets’ camp.
Florida finally stopped Alabama, 31-20, in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta, then went on to win the national championship.
“That was disappointing,” Smith said of the loss to the Gators. “We didn’t execute on both sides of the ball. I was happy for (Florida winning the national title), because they represented the SEC.”
Winning the Outland Trophy didn’t change Smith’s personality.
“A lot of times with success, sometimes they tend to get into more stuff, a little trouble here and there,” Caldwell said. “With the amount of attention that (Smith) got, and his success he had, he never really got into that.”
After losing to Florida, Alabama was sent to the Sugar Bowl to face Utah. Bad matchup. The fact that Smith wasn’t allowed to play made it worse.
Saban suspended Smith just a couple of days before the Sugar Bowl. No official reason was given. There were rumors that Smith had dealings with an agent. Smith denied it.
“It had nothing to do with an agent,” he insisted. “That’s just people throwing stuff against the wall. It’s in the past. It’s over with. I love Coach Saban and the University of Alabama.”
Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and whipped the Tide, 31-17.
Javier Arenas returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to slice Utah’s lead to 21-10 by halftime. But Alabama never caught up.
Smith’s absence was quite evident.
“You spend a month preparing for a bowl game with him there, then you find out he’s not going to be there, that was definitely tough,” said Caldwell. “We found out a day or two days before that he wasn’t going to be able to play. We did (miss him). After the first drive, our left guard, Michael Johnson, went down with a high ankle sprain. We were playing with two freshmen off the bench.”
Smith watched the game on TV at home.
“It was extremely hard (watching),” he said. “I was excited when we scored, when Javier took it back. I didn’t focus on whether they missed me. I missed them. I just wanted Alabama to win.”
After only three years of college, Cincinnati took Smith in the first round of the 2009 draft, the sixth pick overall.
Smith, who took courses in the summer, left school only 15 hours short of his degree in finance. He credited academic advisor John Dever and his staff for keeping him on his pace.
“As a high school guy you dream about going three years,” said Smith. “I want to be an entrepreneur, own my own business, own property, get involved in real estate.”
He took a wiser-than-many attitude into the NFL.
“It’s a means for me,” he said of pro football. “I wanted to do something in life I love. What better way to get paid.”