CECIL HURT: Best receiver in Alabama football history? DeVonta Smith made his case against LSU

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football lends itself to comparisons, inescapably. Walk around Tuscaloosa and you can sense it. Even without the statues and the streets, there is constantly the aura of Paul “Bear” Bryant on your left hand and the presence of Nick Saban on your right.

The campus where the two greatest coaches in college football history have worked their magic doesn’t rest content with “both were great." It demands a “greatest.”

Different eras make such proclamations difficult. Yet in the wake of Alabama’s 55-17 destruction of LSU on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, another question arises. 

Is DeVonta Smith the greatest wide receiver in Alabama history?

Take a deep breath and consider the competition. Smith, as dazzling as he has been, walks a path paved by legends, recognizable to football fans by a single name (or a number). Hutson. Ozzie. Deuce. Julio. Amari. A roll call of greatness, and a high bar for comparison.

As a young reporter, working on a special section commemorating Bryant’s chase to surpass Amos Alonzo Stagg, I asked him the “greatest player he ever coached” question. Never one to single out one player over another, Bryant demurred.

So I rephrased the question to “the greatest player he ever saw.” There was no hesitation.

”Don Hutson was the best player ever to walk across a field,” he said. 

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) makes a touchdown grab against LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

That’s a hard testimonial to ignore, and Hutson lived up to it, changing the way offensive football was played in his NFL career. But that career was 80 years ago. How do you compare it to modern times?

Newsome was the single receiver in a wishbone offense for all of his Alabama career. Does that make him greater or not? No one would dispute the dynamism of David Palmer, but is he more of an icon as a kick returner? There has never been a greater physical specimen than Julio Jones at the position, and he was the harbinger of the coming of the Saban Era: In his wake came Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III. 

But of that group, mighty as it is, whose career transcends Smith’s? The game-winning catch in the national championship game and, even before that, the one in Starkville? The consistency? The wherewithal to step up in this, his senior season?

Some people question whether Smith would have “the same numbers” if Jaylen Waddle hadn’t been injured. The more crucial perspective is that Smith is doing it despite Waddle’s injury, against defenses that know he is Option No. 1 for Mac Jones. That makes his eight catches for 231 yards in little more than one half of work against LSU more amazing, not less. 

Smith’s career isn’t over, of course. What he does in the next three or four games will be a part of the equation. In the same way, the entire Alabama team is not yet at the finish line.

LSU, demoralized, depleted and clearly disinterested in maintaining its level of play from last season, might give up 200 yards receiving yards to one of the local alligators if it didn’t have such tiny hands. The moments are about to get bigger for Alabama. Smith has shown he will rise to such occasions. The entire team still has to match that. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Cecil Hurt