KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ashley Smith’s cellphone was buzzing at 2 o’clock within the morning final New Yr’s Day.

She did not even trouble to take a look at the caller ID. She already knew who was on the opposite finish. It was her child brother, Trey Smith, recognized extra generally across the soccer world as one of the vital imposing inside offensive linemen within the school sport. Smith was driving again to Knoxville from the household residence in Jackson, Tennessee, and had some information to share along with his sister.

“I normally get nervous when the telephone rings at loopy occasions, however Trey had already advised me he was going to go again to campus that evening on New Yr’s Eve and needed to speak,” Ashley recalled. “I bear in mind the dialog prefer it was yesterday.”

She additionally remembers the conviction in her brother’s voice, the identical conviction that has helped form probably the greatest comeback tales in school soccer this season — for Smith and the whole Tennessee group.

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“He simply advised me that he was at a peace with every little thing, and whereas so many individuals on the market had been telling him that he wanted to stroll away from soccer and dangle it up, he was being led by the Lord to keep it up and that he was going to play once more,” Ashley recounted. “And never simply play, however excel.”

True to his phrase, Smith by no means flinched. However, then, when has he? He misplaced his mom, Dorsetta, to congestive coronary heart failure when he was nonetheless in highschool. He was recognized with blood clots in his lungs following a freshman season at Tennessee in 2017 that noticed him earn Freshman All-American honors. And after being cleared by medical doctors simply previous to the beginning of the 2018 season, Smith was pulled off the sphere for the ultimate 5 video games when assessments appeared to point out that the blood clots had returned.

“I do know it appeared bleak to lots of people, and I do know everybody saved saying I would not play once more,” Smith advised ESPN. “However, in my thoughts, I used to be going to play once more. Some had been [concerned] about me enjoying once more, and a few doubted me. I am cool with that. I used to be going to show them flawed and am going to maintain proving them flawed.

“As soon as once more, it goes again to having religion, and I by no means misplaced that religion.”

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt sat down with the junior left guard about this time a 12 months in the past simply to remind him that an important factor was ensuring he was wholesome. And if that meant stepping away from soccer for good, so be it.

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“There’s much more to life than simply soccer, and I needed to ensure that Trey understood that his well being, his long-term well being, was what was most necessary to me,” Pruitt mentioned.

However after additional session with a number of specialists who reviewed Smith’s case, medical doctors decided the assessments carried out in October 2018 had been suboptimal and extra in keeping with potential scar tissue from Smith’s prior blood clots in February 2018 and never recurrent blood clots.

Smith, alongside along with his household and UT’s medical employees, met once more to assessment the dangers. After consulting with Dr. Stephan Moll on the College of North Carolina, Tennessee’s head group doctor, Dr. Chris Klenck, mentioned a routine was developed to permit Smith to take part all through this season whereas retaining his danger of latest blood clots to a minimal. It was nonetheless a protracted highway again for Smith, who admits he needed to lose almost 40 kilos after sitting out these remaining 5 video games a 12 months in the past. However he continued to grind. He lived within the weight room and received in additional cardio each likelihood he had. He additionally began consuming more healthy, stopping late-night runs to Prepare dinner Out for burgers and fries, and as an alternative turning into a salmon aficionado. A bodily specimen from the day he stepped foot on campus, Smith received even stronger. In the future final summer time, the Tennessee energy coaches needed to cease him at 375 kilos on the ability clear, an Olympic weightlifting train.

ESPN analyst Cole Cubelic mentioned the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Smith, who can not absolutely apply, was one of many high three or 4 offensive linemen in school soccer through the second half of this season. Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire

“When your energy clear will get higher, which means you are extra explosive in your physique,” Smith mentioned. “I used to be going for 395 and thought I might get it. I actually needed 405, however they did not wish to likelihood it.”

The trickiest a part of the medical doctors’ routine for Smith was he needed to keep away from contact in apply, which makes it exceedingly tough to organize for the trials of a sport, notably for a lineman. Smith mentioned he most likely has had solely two full-contact practices going again to preseason camp. The remainder have principally been walk-throughs.

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“It is unimaginable to see every little thing he is come again from,” mentioned Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, one among Smith’s closest associates on the group. “He has barely practiced through the season, after which on sport day, he comes on the market and is without doubt one of the finest offensive linemen within the nation. It has been inspiring for all of us.”

So, as Smith walks onto the gridiron Thursday evening towards Indiana within the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl (7 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) in what might be his remaining sport in a Tennessee uniform, he’ll achieve this with the satisfaction that he did not simply return to soccer, however he additionally got here again as one of the vital dominant gamers within the nation at his place. Smith showcased the identical type that made him ESPN’s No. 1 general prospect when he signed with the Vols in 2017, incomes him a consensus first-team All-SEC choice and garnering some All-America point out.

“Each time I stepped onto the sphere, I needed to be essentially the most bodily pressure on the market,” mentioned Smith, who turned a YouTube sensation this season with a few of his menacing blocks. “However I nonetheless should be extra constant.”

Smith is a fan favourite at Tennessee and an lively member of the group, organizing meals drives and gathering coats for these in want. Bryan Lynn/USA TODAY Sports activities

Off the sphere, he was lively within the Knoxville group, from organizing meals drives for the homeless to gathering coats for these in want when the climate turns chilly. For that work, he was one among three finalists for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Yr Award.

The very best a part of this season for Smith, although, was seeing the best way Tennessee’s group rebounded from a brutal begin, successful six of its final seven video games after opening the season with back-to-back residence losses towards Georgia State and BYU. The veterans on the group had been an enormous a part of the turnaround, and Guarantano mentioned Smith was one of many catalysts.

“We by no means gave up on one another, and Trey was an enormous a part of that,” Guarantano mentioned. “As a group, it took us some time to click on and perceive every little thing. However when it did, you see what occurred. Trey was the identical approach and actually the center of the group, as a result of when it clicked for him, he was unstoppable.”

ESPN analyst Cole Cubelic, a former offensive lineman at Auburn who research offensive line play, mentioned the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Smith was one of many high three or 4 offensive linemen within the nation through the second half of this season.

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“Contemplating how little apply he had makes it one of many extra spectacular offensive line seasons I’ve seen in a very long time,” Cubelic mentioned. “His energy and willingness to complete blocks separates him from virtually everybody else within the nation.”

Smith has but to finalize his resolution on whether or not he’ll declare for the NFL draft. He has gathered some data from NFL golf equipment, however has been adamant about not wanting to debate his future in any element. He’s scheduled to graduate in Might with a level in sports activities administration and a minor in enterprise.

“My focus is on this college so long as I am right here, and as soon as I end this final sport, I am going to sit down and take into consideration what I wish to do,” Smith mentioned. “Proper now, my focus is on beating Indiana.”

He by no means thought of sitting out the bowl sport, a pattern turning into extra frequent amongst high gamers, particularly these gamers with any harm or well being points.

“I do not even know why it might cross my thoughts, to be trustworthy,” Smith mentioned. “I do not blame guys who do not play and by no means understood knocking guys for not enjoying. All people’s scenario is completely different. However for me, I’ve nonetheless received so much to show, and I wish to play in each sport I can in that orange and white.”

Earlier than Smith’s mom ever received sick, he promised her that he would in the future make it to the NFL. He mentioned not a day goes by that he would not take into consideration her.

“There have been a number of moments this 12 months I want she might see,” Smith mentioned earlier than pausing and breaking out right into a delicate chuckle. “However being fairly frank, if she had been nonetheless right here, I most likely would not be enjoying as a result of she would not need me to play.”

Ashley Smith mentioned her mother is undoubtedly “smiling down from heaven on her child boy,” and never simply because he has been devouring opposing defensive linemen on the soccer area.

“That is simply the tip of the iceberg of what God has in retailer for Trey, each on and off the sphere; and every little thing Trey does, he provides God the glory,” she mentioned. “That is what our mom could be most happy with.”