By Jimmy Hyams
When blood clots were discovered in the lungs of Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith in the spring of 2018, there was no assurance he’d ever play football again.
He did, starting the first seven games of last season.
Then the blood clots resurfaced, and Smith was sidelined again.
From that point, Tennessee tried to find a remedy that would allow Smith to practice without running the risk of bleeding, then play in games on Saturdays.
It worked – spectacularly.
After a slow start to this season, Smith came on like gangbusters, recording pancake block after pancake block, earning SEC offensive linemen of the week honors twice and, likely, first-team All-SEC recognition.
It’s been reported that since August, Smith has had just two full contact practices.
Did Smith doubt he’d be able to play under those circumstances?
“Yeah, absolutely,’’ said the junior from Jackson, Tenn. “You always have a doubt in your mind. And it’s weird to say, but just believing in God, I just didn’t make that much of a big deal about it. I just went to work every day and whenever the game came rolling around, it just kept getting easier and easier.
“It has been a lot more comfortable.’’
No joke. Smith has been dominant the second half of the season, so dominant that the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic, a former offensive lineman at Auburn, thinks Smith is an elite talent.
Cubelic said it’s been “amazing to watch’’ Smith perform considering at a high level he doesn’t have contact in practice.
Smith has been nominated for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award, which goes to a student-athlete who has done well on and off the field.
Cubelic said if Smith decides to turn pro early and visits with NFL officials “they’re not going to get around a more impressive kid. That’s the part I think people will fall in love with.’’
The NFL might also fall in love with Smith’s play.
Cubelic said NFL guys he’s talked to would like to see Smith return for his senior year at Tennessee and “hopefully get things under wraps’’ and “have an idea of what the future is going to look like.’’
Cubelic said Smith is “a legitimate first-round NFL talent.’’
Cubelic isn’t sure how high Smith would go in the draft.
Cubelic: “It only takes one team that has a doctor that has handled a similar situation somewhere that can go to the front office and say, `It’s not a big deal. We’ve handled it. We’ve got it. I’ve dealt with it with this guy and this guy and this guy. And this is what we do and we’ll be fine and we manage it moving forward.’
“That kind of confidence only needs to come from one team that’s drafting in the first round. And boom, he’s off the board.
“If he came out, he’s the best guard in the draft talent wise. I don’t even think it’s close. I think easily a first-round talent, if not a first-half of the first-round talent.
“But there will be some serious unknowns. I don’t think we’ve had a medical situation like this that’s been dealt with at the combine. … But it would be interesting to see. I don’t know how scared they (NFL teams) would be. I don’t know how confident some of the medical staffs would be.’’
Cubelic also questioned how many teams would be OK with a player not practicing, then playing, like Smith has done at Tennessee.
“They might be fine with it. They might not like it at all. There are so many uncertainties about it,’’ Cubelic said.
As for Smith, he’s non-committal.
“I’m not really focused on that,’’ Smith said of the NFL. “I’m just focused on the next bowl game, making sure our team is successful while I wear the Orange and White.’’