K.J. Smith: From a Bulldog to a Lion

K.J. Smith against Alabama A&M recorded four solo tackles, three assisted tackles, and one tackle for loss.

A leader, an overcomer, an influencer and a defensive talent, K.J. Smith checks off all of these boxes. Smith, a senior defensive back from Perry, Ga., is making up for lost playing time by turning himself into a force on the field for the Lions football team – something that seemed improbable only a few short years ago.

At the end of his junior year in high school, Smith developed a rare disease known as juvenile dermatomyositis, a disease that affects only 4 out of every 1 million kids under the age of 16. After his diagnosis, Smith was forced to lead his team from the sidelines as a defensive captain rather than on the field.

“It was tough for sure,” Smith said. “I never thought I would be able to play again. The doctors actually told me I would not play again. I kept my faith, I believed and knew that I would be able to play again. That was probably the toughest two years of my life.”

After Smith sat out his entire senior season, decided to enroll at the University of Georgia and play football under head coach Kirby Smart as a walk-on. But even at Georgia, Smith’s transition back to football took time and a lot of effort.

“There were times I wanted to give up, but they knew my ability and what I was capable of, it was just a matter of if I would be physically able to play again,” Smith said. “It took two years to get through, which affected my senior year of high school and my first year of college. I couldn’t do any physical activity beside a slight jog my first semester of college, but once I got cleared in the spring, I started working out and getting back in shape and I went to tryouts and ended up making the team.”

Once a member of the team, Smith returned to a familiar leadership role on the field, but this time as a member of the Bulldog defensive scout team. As a scout team member, Smith went up against UGA’s starting offensive in practice each week to prepare them for the different defenses the players faced.

“It was crazy going against them guys,” Smith said. “Just being able to help out, knowing that what we did as a scout team made them better for games. It shows by leading all the way up to the [National] Championship game that year. We use to give them guys great looks, going against players like Terry Godwin, Riley Ridley and Jake Fromm, it was just a big experience.”

A powerhouse team in 2017, the Bulldogs made it to the National Championship game after a win over Auburn in the SEC championship game and a shootout win against the Oklahoma Sooners in the first round of the College Football Playoff. This paved the way for the Bulldogs to face the Alabama Crimson Tide for the National Championship, a game the Bulldogs narrowly lost in overtime 26-23.

Even after contributing to a team’s success at an elite level of football, Smith wanted more. He knew he could do more than play on a scouting team, even if that meant leaving a vaunted program like Georgia or a storied league like the SEC. He wanted to be a contributor on the field in games, something that had eluded him ever since his diagnosis. It was clear to Smith that he would not see playing time in games for Georgia, so decided to transfer to a school that would give him an opportunity to do so.

“The transfer process was smooth since I was going from FBS to FCS, I wouldn’t have to sit out a year and so I was immediately eligible to play,” Smith said. “I got recruited to (UNA) by coach (Ryan) Aplin. He knew one of the coaches on the UGA staff and the coach gave him world that I wanted to go somewhere and play and he knew I had the ability to do so. Coach Aplin ended up giving me a call and that was really all it took.”

The transition placed Smith right into the midst of the first-team defense for the Lions. Smith took full advantage of his new opportunity at UNA, starting 8 games in 2018. On the season, he had 49 tackles, 30 which were unassisted, five pass breakups and three interceptions that he returned for a total of 79 yards.

“It is different, very different [playing in the FCS],” Smith said. “The speed of the game, the speed and size of players, is probably the biggest thing. Playing against SEC players, they are much bigger and faster, that doesn’t mean this [the Big South] is easy.”

Smith’s success at UNA has continued this season. In three games, he has accumulated 20 tackles, 10 of which were unassisted.

From uncertainty about playing just five years ago, Smith has cemented himself as one of the top defensive players on the Lions. Smith is making up for the time he lost in high school on the field every Saturday in Braly Municipal Stadium.

A man, a leader, an influencer and an overcomer. This is K.J. Smith. This is his legacy.