Three games into the college football season, Samford senior Chandler Smith is tied for the FCS lead in receiving touchdowns.
Ten times he’s grabbed a pass for the Bulldogs this season. Five of those times finished with Smith celebrating with his Samford University teammates in the end zone. Three of those touchdown receptions came in last week’s come-from-behind win at Tennessee Tech. The final one provided the game-winning points.
Thus far, it’s been a Cinderella-type ending for a college football experience that began with a healthy dose of frustration.
Smith was a productive two-way player at Walton High in Marietta, Georgia. He played cornerback on defense and caught 26 passes for 582 yards with six touchdowns as a receiver. College attention didn’t follow. He had no Division I offers but did have some opportunities as a walk-on. He chose Chris Hatcher’s program.
“Thankfully, my parents allowed me to better myself,” said Smith, who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in economics in the spring and is currently working on a master’s degree in economics and sports marketing. “I took this opportunity here at Samford. I wasn’t too familiar with the school. It’s the best decision of my life. It all kind of makes sense now, why I’m here. It’s part of a greater plan, God’s plan for me.”
Understanding that was the case, however, didn’t come overnight.
“I look back at how devastated I was, sometimes, in high school when all my teammates were getting offers,” the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Smith said. “I was like, ‘Where is that for me?’ I see now why that happened. That builds a lot of character in me. I’m thankful for the opportunity that Coach Hatcher gave me to come here and earn myself a spot on this team. Like I said, it's something I’m very thankful for, and I’ll take it with me the rest of my life.”
The early days at Samford weren’t easy. He was redshirted as a true freshman in 2018, which means his days were spent helping his teammates get ready to play.
“That first year on the scout team, when I was getting bullied and getting pushed around, that wasn’t too fun,” Smith said. “I can tell you I made some calls back home, saying I’m not sure if this is the right place for me, if this is the right thing to do. But my parents and my teammates and people around me just kept pushing me and telling me it’s all going to turn into something good. Thankfully, I trusted them and I can see now this is right where I’m supposed to be.”
He never called it easy.
Smith spent the 2019 season as a backup running back, rushing for 71 yards on seven carries, and as a special teams player. The 2020 season was wiped away by COVID-19, and the 2021 spring season ended before it started for Smith. He had four catches in the season opener against East Tennessee State University (ETSU) before suffering a season-ending injury.
Smith worked his way back on the field for the 2021 fall season, and things finally clicked. He had 42 catches for 406 yards with two touchdowns. His best game came against ETSU when he grabbed 11 passes for 124 yards.
“When he got here, you could tell he had the ‘it’ factor,” Hatcher said. “He worked extremely hard, started on the scout team. Each and every year, he just improved considerably. He’s a great route runner, a great young man, does extremely well in school. He’s really what it’s all about. So far, in these first couple of games, it's really starting to show.”
This season started with Smith catching three passes for 67 yards with two touchdowns in a win over Kennesaw State. He had two grabs for 15 yards at Georgia and five receptions for 56 yards with three touchdowns in the win at Tennessee Tech. The game-winner came when he grabbed a short pass in the flat, made the first defender miss, picked up a block by teammate D.J. Rias and darted into the end zone to complete the 25-yard touchdown.
“That was the name of the game that whole drive,” Smith said. “We knew we had to go out there and run our base plays. No one had to step up and wear an ‘S’ on their chest and be Superman. Everybody just had to do their job. On that last play, the line blocked well, Mike [Hiers] got the ball out quick, I was able to catch, made one move, D.J. Rias was there to make a big block, Kendall Watson and Judd Cockett were blocking downfield. Like I said, I didn’t have to do too much.”
To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email email@example.com.
Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.