Remember Missouri versus Georgia in 2016?
Stretch your memory beyond just the heartbreak and everything that you’ve tried to forget. Don’t worry, this isn’t another one of those stories. Recall five minutes into the first quarter, on a first-and-15 for Missouri. A receiver ran a fine slant route for an ordinary 7-yard completion, the kind of tidy play that’s forgotten by the end of the possession.
That was Justin Smith’s first and only reception as a Missouri Tiger.
Smith is a curious case. He is part of a small class of redshirt seniors who will play their final game at Faurot Field on Saturday against Tennessee. The group has been through a lot together; they are the team’s last remnants of the Gary Pinkel era and the 2015 protests. Smith stands out because he is a 6-foot-7 target who has practically never played.
But he stayed true to Missouri for the whole five years.
“He is somebody who I’m going to be able to point to in upcoming years and about how he took the role that he had and he did the best job he could with it,” MU coach Barry Odom said. “I’m proud of him.”
Odom said he isn’t sure if Smith will get a chance to play any snaps in Saturday’s game, but even if he doesn’t, his teammates say you’ll be able to see him encouraging the Tigers on the sideline. He’ll be honored with the other seniors during pregame ceremonies.
So why not pay homage the tall guy who stuck around?
Justin Smith is a jokester. The only problem is his jokes aren’t exactly fit for stories like this.
“Most of Smitty’s jokes ain’t to be said out loud,” linebacker Nick Bolton said.
“We have some I can’t talk about,” laughed fellow redshirt senior Richaud Floyd. Smith was the first teammate Floyd ever talked to on the phone after committing to Missouri, and their mysterious inside jokes from that phone call have lasted all five years since. Smith has quipped to teammates about how much better he is than everyone at basketball, and he has the height and dunking ability to prove it.
“Nobody dislikes him,” Floyd said. “If you have a problem with Justin, it’s kind of on you.”
Smith is a scout team staple. Last week as Missouri was preparing for Florida, one of the defense’s most pressing concerns was receiver-tight end hybrid Kyle Pitts. On Missouri’s scout team offense — basically the backups designated to model the opponent for defensive starters to practice against — Smith role-played as Pitts.
“The way he prepared us was probably the most impactful thing for us in that game,” Bolton said. “We shut down (Pitts) for most of the game.”
Pitts is Florida’s leading receiver, but the Tigers kept him to 38 yards on four catches.
Smith is a sneakerhead.
Teammates say he has a vast collection of Jordans, and whatever is on his feet always seems to match the rest of his outfit.
“He’ll come in with a different kind of shoe for every day of the month,” Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “Some of them are kind of neat. He’s got a couple of pink and green ones. I think I saw him yesterday walking around campus with orange to match his hat.”
Smith is a friend and a motivator.
“If you’re watching the game and you’re looking over here on the sideline,” Bolton said, “you’ll see Smitty right beside coach Odom. He’s the most energizing guy on our team.”
“We always had a connection from Day 1,” Floyd said. “Great guy. Would go to the world’s end for him.”
The redshirt seniors share a particular bond because they all suffered together through an intense workout program their freshman year called “Gun Club” under Pinkel. Safety Ronnell Perkins remembers Smith being the most upbeat in the group, even if that wasn’t saying much. They still laugh about it to this day.
“We always talk about it being the hardest workout we ever did,” Perkins said. “The first day of Gun Club, we came out here (Faurot Field) and ran every stair, and every line we had to do a cartwheel, come back and do caterpillar walk.”
Most of all, Smith is a trooper. His career has been derailed by two knee surgeries, but he has stayed the course at Missouri doing whatever was asked of him.
“He’s been here five years,” Colon-Castillo said, “and he still comes and brings energy every single day.”
“I know it’s kind of hard for him,” Perkins said, “but he’s a leader on the team even though he doesn’t get many snaps. He built so many relationships here, he didn’t want to cut those relationships.”
“Listen just on game day on the sideline,” Odom said. “There’s not anybody more into the game, or who has more of a positive message, whether we’re up by 10 or down by 10.”
If you’re watching Saturday on SEC Network, maybe you’ll hear him. If you’re at Faurot Field, maybe you’ll see his 6-foot-7 frame during the ceremonies. Or who knows? Maybe even on the field.
But that’s Justin Smith, the tall guy who stuck around.