TUSCALOOSA — It began as a joke between father and son, until it became reality.
Growing up, Irv Smith Jr. refused to believe he’d ever have to resign himself to following in his father’s large footsteps.
“Irv, I see everything in me in you — you’re going to be tight end,” Irv Smith Sr. said with the certainty of experience.
“No, dad, I’m going to be a wide receiver,” Irv Smith Jr. quipped back with the indignation of youth.
For much of his childhood, the athletic but lanky Smith Jr. was determined to make his own mark. But his father, who played tight end at Notre Dame in the early 1990s before embarking on a seven-year NFL career, always knew better.
“It was a running joke for many years, because in his mind, he was always tall, he was always long, he was always quick,” Smith Sr., recalled recently. “And of course, when you’re younger … in your mind, you’re always going to be 180 pounds and this cat-quick wide receiver.
"(But) I’d tell him from Day 1 he was going to be a tight end, and he didn’t want to accept it.”
It wasn’t until the nearly 200-pound Smith Jr. was moved inside full-time during his junior season at Brother Martin High in New Orleans that he finally embraced the opportunity.
From there, Smith dove into his new position head-first, eventually signing with Alabama in 2016 as the potential replacement for future NFL first-round talent O.J. Howard.
“He’s embraced the fact that yes, he is a tight end, and tight ends are required to do more than offensive linemen, they’re required to do more than receivers,” his father said. “They do everything, and he’s embraced that.”
Now at roughly 240 pounds on a good day, the Crimson Tide’s dynamic junior tight end isn’t necessarily as large or as physically imposing as some other tight ends across college football, weighing about 20 pounds south of Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam and 15 pounds less than senior teammate Hale Hentges.
Even his father comfortably tipped the scales at upwards of 265 pounds during much of his NFL career, where Smith Sr. was a top-20 pick for the New Orleans Saints between 1993-1997 before one-year stops with the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns.
“I call him ‘Irv 2.0’ because he’s the newer, improved version,” Smith Sr. joked.
“Irv 2.0” is certainly living up to the nickname as one of No. 1 Alabama’s most dynamic and well-rounded playmakers this season.
"I feel that all the tight ends work very hard and want to improve on a lot of things and I feel like we’ve done that so far," Smith said. "With our group, we have a lot of depth, and I feel like we have one of the most — if not the most — talented (tight end) group in the country. (And) I feel like (offensive coordinator Mike) Locksley and the quarterbacks have done a great job trying to find us and get us available to make plays.”
Through nine games, Smith Jr. is third on the team with 26 receptions — one of five Crimson Tide players with at least 20 catches already — for 448 yards and six touchdowns this season, which is one more score than what Howard combined for over 30 games his junior and senior seasons at Alabama.
And he’s been fairly consistent as well, accounting for touchdowns in each of the Tide’s last four games, including hauling in a 25-yard score with 1:15 left in the second quarter of Saturday's 29-0 win over then-No. 4 LSU. Smith finished with four catches for 64 yards and the one score against his childhood team.
“(Smith) is really, really dynamic with how he runs his routes, he’s very fast and he’s very strong,” Tide starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. “He’s a very good (pass) catcher, as well. And if he was a lot skinnier than what he is now, he’d probably play receiver or something. He’s really that good.”
Yet, while his offensive production has Tide fans grinning and NFL scouts clamoring, Smith’s development as a reliable in-line blocker has allowed his playmaking to stand out even more.
“Not that he wasn’t good before, but you can tell he’s really established his hand-in-the-ground blocking (technique), which is going to help in the future,” Hentges said of Smith Jr. “Obviously, he’s been a really big deep-play threat since he first stepped on campus, but now he’s just making plays (all over). He’s realizing what potential he has and what ability he has, and I’m really excited to see where his game goes.”
Known more for his receiving prowess entering college, Smith has expanded his game while modeling himself after Howard in both work ethic and production.
That work ethic has been especially evident in the weight room, where Smith can now bench press 450 pounds, allowing the smaller tight end to better handle one-on-one blocking assignments against even the SEC’s best pass rushers.
“(It was) like he was driving 30-40 miles per hour his sophomore year and he’s taken it to about 60-70 miles per hour now because he really understands what it’s like to play on this level,” Irv Sr., said of his son. “He’s able play every down, and he knows the difference between a blocking play where you need to dominate your guy and a passing play when you have to go out there, run get open and make a big catch.”
And given his many big catches this season, Alabama coach Nick Saban has certainly taken notice.
"Irv is a really good player. He's played well this year. He does all phases of what we do well,” Saban said. “He's a good receiver, he's a good off-the-ball blocker, he's a good on-the-ball blocker. He's got really good hands and he's fast enough to be a threat down the field. So we have some weapons, he's one of them, and hopefully we'll be able to utilize that because sometimes people lose that guy. The tight end is an easy guy to lose."