PASADENA, Calif. — When Washington coach Steve Sarkisian wants to get a pulse of the locker room, when he wants to give his team a spark, he turns to senior receiver Kevin Smith.
Smith obliges by screaming “funny noises,” in his words, or doing a crazy jig — anything, really, to put a smile on teammates’ faces. Fun is the word used most often to describe Smith.
“You never see Kevin not having fun. He’s always dancing, jumping around,” UW tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said.
So, Kevin, what is the pulse of the UW locker room these days?
“I feel like we’re all ready,” Smith said, two days before UW’s visit to the Rose Bowl for Friday night’s matchup against No. 13 UCLA. “Most of us are from SoCal, so we’re all ready. Most of the guys have friends there (on UCLA), so we’re all ready to show them how we play.”
If there’s a game in which the Huskies (6-3, 3-3 Pac-12) need a spark, need something fun, something special from Smith, it’s Friday night against the Bruins (7-2, 4-2).
In what amounts to UW’s last, best chance to take that proverbial “next step,” Smith is a vital part of the game plan as the most experienced, and most reliable, receiver for senior quarterback Keith Price.
Smith and Price, both from Compton, Calif., are close friends. When Smith wants to play pick-up basketball in the offseason, he turns to Price. (“The guy can jump out of the gym — he can go 360, under the legs, everything,” Price said.) And when Smith wants a challenge in his favorite video game, NBA 2K, he turns to Price. Much fun ensues.
In turn, when Price has a crucial play to make, when the game is on the line, he’ll often call on Smith.
“Kevin is one of the biggest inspirations on the team,” Price said.
Smith, a 5-foot-11, 214-pound senior, surprised many when he emerged in August as UW’s second starting wideout opposite Kasen Williams. Smith had become something of a forgotten figure in 2012 while slowly recovering from a torn ACL suffered during a practice before the Alamo Bowl in December 2011.
Even with little “nicks and bruises that held me back” last season, Smith said he never lost confidence. Now, with Williams out for the season with a broken leg, Smith is the most seasoned receiver on the roster and as such figures to be a key piece to UW’s success over the final three games of the regular season.
“You can ask Kevin, ‘Who’s the best receiver in the country?’ And he’ll say, ‘Me.’ That’s how he honestly feels,” Price said. “He’s not just saying it because it’s a cliché thing to say.”
In an indication of how important Smith has become to the offense, Sarkisian last week pulled him out of his regular duty as a returner on kickoffs. The Huskies, the coach explained, couldn’t afford to risk Smith getting injured on special teams.
“I couldn’t have asked for more than what Kevin Smith has given us this year,” Sarkisian said.
As a junior at Centennial High, Smith was the MVP of the Pioneer League — in basketball. He hadn’t given football much thought until midway through the fall of his junior year. He can still picture the scene outside his home on a Saturday morning when a friend walked by and Smith stopped him, wondering where his friend was going.
The friend said he was on his way to a team meeting to study film of the previous night’s Centennial football game. Smith, with nothing better to do, asked if he could tag along. It wound up being a life-changing route.
A little more than a year later, at the end of his senior season, Smith was again the MVP of the Pioneer League — this time as a wide receiver with football scholarship offers from several Pac-12 schools. Five years later, he’s only a few credits shy of earning his undergraduate degree in American Ethnic Studies.
“He’s probably (among the) top two or three guys on the team of just my favorite guys,” Sarkisian said. “You have those guys — the team knows it. ... I value his opinion on a lot of issues with the team. He comes to practice every single day with an amazing mindset that he is going to embrace the opportunity.”
Said Smith: “I feel like I’m the person that can go around and make everybody happy, put a smile on their face.”
And if Smith has his way Friday night, the Huskies will be having a lot of fun at the Rose Bowl, in and out of the locker room.