Wynrick Smothers has spent a significant part of his high school and college football career waiting, imagining plays instead of making them.
For three years, Smothers watched Jordan Jefferson, his older teammate at Destrehan High School, become a coveted recruit en route to a Class 5A state championship and career at LSU.
At the University of Central Arkansas, Smothers studied behind Nathan Dick, who in two seasons set school passing records and led the Bears to their first Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearance.
In both cases, when Smothers finally earned a chance to play, he proved he was ready. As a high school senior, he led Destrehan to another undefeated season in 2008 while winning another state championship.
Fast forward to Saturday: Smothers, a redshirt junior, will lead No. 8 UCA (9-2) into its second-round playoff game against No. 24 Georgia Southern (8-3) in Statesboro, Ga.
“I just tried to pick up all I could from Jordan and from Nathan,” said Smothers, whose quick release, mental makeup, accuracy and ability to extend possessions with his scrambling earned him Offensive Player of the Year honors in the Southland Conference.
The Bears enter the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. Not bad for Smothers’ first season as a starter.
“I just tried to watch their work habits, what they do on and off the field,” he said. “That just happened to pay off for me because, if you’re sitting back, watching and paying attention, you pick up a lot.”
Smothers has completed 261 of 386 passes for 2,852 yards and a conference-best 31 touchdowns — one shy of Dick’s school record, set last season. He has run for 370 yards and three touchdowns, led game-winning drives against then-No. 3 Sam Houston State and No. 14 McNeese State and has become one of the most popular students on campus, located in Conway.
He’s the face of the program — literally.
“He has a beautiful smile. I’ve been calling him ‘Smiley’ since he got here,” said coach Clint Conque, a product of Catholic High School and former All-American linebacker at Nicholls State.
Smothers’ success has not surprised his teammates and coaches. For years, they saw his potential at practice as he waited his turn behind an All-American. They saw it during his limited game action, including a 53-24 loss at Arkansas State in 2011. He passed for 224 yards with one TD and an interception as Dick missed the game with a concussion.
They saw it during the 2012 season opener at Ole Miss. Behind his heroics, the Bears led at halftime and entered the fourth quarter trailing 28-20 before losing 49-27. Smothers passed for 247 yards with two TDs and an interception.
“He came in right away and became a playmaker on the team,” said receiver Dominique Croom, who is also his roommate.
Croom has caught 52 passes for 647 yards and eight TDs, earning all-Southland honors.
Perhaps Smothers’ biggest challenge entering the season was health. His past two seasons have been marred with injuries: As a redshirt freshman, he suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the following year, he had surgery on his non-throwing hand.
This season, Smothers has played in all 11 games. UCA earned a first-round bye, giving it two weeks to prepare for Georgia Southern, which has won six national championships and is in the postseason for the 19th time.
“We just have to play within ourselves and not worry about how good they are or what they’ve done,” Smothers said. “When it comes down to it, it’s about who’s the best team on Saturday afternoon.”