HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Privately, Montaurius Smith vowed to become the best receiver in Alabama A&M history when he showed up five years ago.
Publicly, the 6-foot, 177-pound senior kept his thoughts to himself.
Smith wanted to be better than John Stallworth, who went on to win four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wanted to be better than Barry Wagner, who holds school records for catches in a game and a season as well as marks for receiving yards in a game and a season.
Most of all, Smith wanted to be better than Thomas Harris, who finished his career as the Bulldogs’ all-time leading receiver with 205 catches for 3,259 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2006-09.
“When I first got here, I just wanted to play,” said Smith, who needs 27 catches to pass Harris and become A&M’s all-time leading receiver. “I wanted to be the best receiver to ever play here. Everybody talked about Thomas Harris and compared me to Thomas Harris. I want to beat Thomas Harris. I’m going to get him.”
Smith will continue his quest Saturday when Southern comes to town.
Kickoff is 1 p.m. at Louis Crews Stadium.
“The record is important as an individual milestone,” Smith said, “but at the end of the season, if we don’t win SWAC, it won’t be that important to me because I want to go out with a (championship) ring.”
Smith had a chance to win one in 2011 as A&M surged a 15-0 lead before losing 16-15 to Grambling in the title game. Getting there this year, Smith admitted, is going to be difficult.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in a pretty bad position, but it’s doable. We can’t afford to lose another game, and we’ll need some help. It happens every year, so if we do our part, everything will fall into place.”
The Bulldogs enter the game 2-4 overall and 1-2 in league play. The Jaguars, last year’s SWAC champs, are 3-3 and 2-1.
“Southern has a very good team,” said Smith, who is second in the SWAC in receiving yards per game (74.2) and sixth in receptions per game (4.2). “If we do us, we’ll be able to come away with the victory.”
If A&M is going to knock off Southern, Smith will have to lead the way. Nobody knows that better than first-year coach James Spady.
“He’s a ball hawk,” Spady said. “If the ball is anywhere close, he’s going to get it. We’re going to try to find ways to get him the ball … catching it or running it, because he’s our featured playmaker.”
Smith never imagined he’d be using his playmaking skills at A&M.
He figured he’d be playing in the Southeastern Conference or the Ohio Valley Conference after a star-studded career at Jackson-Olin High in Birmingham. Smith, who had a 4.2 grade-point average and “20-something” on the ACT, visited Auburn and garnered interest from Ole Miss and Tennessee. He also visited Samford and drew interest from UAB.
But Smith ran into problems when one of his high school counselors failed to provide the necessary paperwork to the NCAA Clearinghouse.
“Most of the schools that were interested in me backed off because they figured I was going to be ineligible,” Smith said.
Smith visited A&M in January 2010. He signed with the Bulldogs a few days later.
Former A&M defensive coordinator Brawnski Towns signed Smith and is glad he did.
“After I found out the big schools had backed off of him, I stayed on him and kept pursuing him,” Towns said. “He came to visit just before signing day, and we were able to get him. He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever been around. ... But what makes him special is his ability with the ball in his hands.”
Smith has been arguably the most consistent receiver in the SWAC during his career, having led A&M in receiving each of his first three seasons. He’s on pace to do it again this season.
“That’s an amazing statistic, and it’s something to be really proud of and something he can carry with him for the rest of his life,” Spady said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it. We’ll do everything we can to make sure that’s the case.”
He had 49 catches for 669 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The next year, he had 50 catches for 551 yards and four touchdowns. Last year, he had 55 catches for 776 yards and five touchdowns. Smith has 25 catches for 446 yards and two touchdowns through six games this season.
“I feel like I’ve had a pretty successful career,” said Smith, who enters Saturday’s game with 179 catches for 2,442 yards and 11 touchdowns. “If I average five catches the rest of the season, I’ll have the record.”
He will graduate in December with a degree in political science. Smith would like to play in the NFL, but if that doesn’t happen, he will pursue law school.
Spady believes Smith will be successful at whatever he chooses.
“He’s a great young man,” he said. “He’s a pleasure to be around and a pleasure to coach. The fact that he’s a good football player is a bonus. ...
“His teammates think a lot of him, and the respect of your peers are important to most people. He’s taken on a leadership role even though he’s a quiet guy. He leads by example and those are the things that you’re looking for.”