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Franklin's 'electrifying' Steven Smothers thrives on pressure, draws comparisons to Tavon Austin

The bigger the stage the better for Franklin's Steven Smothers.

Give the three-time All-Metro athlete the football in space and he will gain a lot of yards. His speed, quickness and elusive moves make him a standout as a receiver, rusher, return man and cornerback — especially when the spotlight is on.

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In the state finals his sophomore and junior years, Smothers scored six of the Indians' eight touchdowns to lead Franklin to the first two state football championships in school history.

When the Indians fell short of the title game this fall, Smothers used that as motivation to turn in a performance at the Maryland Crab Bowl that earned him Player of the Game two weeks ago. He caught three passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns to lead Team Baltimore to a 31-28 victory over the Washington, D.C. senior all-stars.

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"It's just his knack to make big plays and it doesn't seem like any stage is too big for him," Team Baltimore and St. Frances coach Messay Hailemariam said. "There were key moments when we needed big plays and he found a way not only to make them but to make them in grand style."

Smothers, rated the No. 15 senior in Maryland and the No. 30 athlete in the nation by the recruiting web site Rivals.com, hopes to polish off his high school career with another big performance at the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Friday.Perceived snubs from other all-star games provide him with motivation.

"I'm looking to pretty much prove myself because I didn't get picked for The Opening, didn't get picked for the Army All-America game. I didn't get picked for the Under Armour game, so I just want to go there and prove that I'm one of the best in the country," Smothers said.

Not only does Smothers like the big stage, he thrives on pressure. He loves the challenge and he lives up to it just about every time.

"When the lights come on, I've got to do something so my team can come off with the win," he said. "With some things, the pressure gets to me, but with football, I live for the pressure. The more pressure the better. Last year [in the state final], we were down 21-7 going into halftime, came back out and that was pressure. Pressure in football, that makes me play my best."

Smothers developed a taste for the spotlight early on.

As a 13-year old playing in a youth football tournament in Atlanta, Smothers led his underdog team to the championship and caught the attention of a handful of NFL and former NFL players.

He drew praise from former New York Jet Aaron Maybin and former Atlanta Falcon Dunta Robinson after his team's first two wins. City graduate Bryant Johnson, who played for several NFL teams, told Smothers he would bring Lions receiver Calvin Johnson out to watch him in the final.

"I was like, 'He's Calvin Johnson. He's busy,'" Smothers said. "But sure enough, before the game, I turn around and there's this 6-6 Megatron. I was in the seventh grade."

Smothers stood out in the championship. He scored the first and last touchdowns in a 42-24 win over a much bigger Deion Sanders-sponsored Texas team that didn't expect to lose.

"There was a little chitter chatter before the game between the two teams, so after I scored the last touchdown, I did Deion Sanders' dance in the end zone. After that [Johnson] told me I was special, that I could definitely play on Sundays. So after I heard a couple NFL players and a Hall of Famer, a lockdown corner like Deion Sanders, say that, I thought, 'Yeah I've really got a chance to play on Sundays.'"

Smothers is still aiming for the NFL and every time he doesn't reach one of his goals, such as being selected for the Under Armour game or getting every scholarship offer he wanted, he channels that into his game.

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At 5 feet 10, 165 pounds, he's been called too small to play in the NFL, so Smothers modeled his game on someone his size who proved the critics wrong — Tavon Austin, the former Dunbar and West Virginia star who now plays for the St. Louis Rams.

Smothers was dubbed Tavon 2.0 early in his high school career for the speed and shifty moves similar to those Austin was showing every week at West Virginia at the time. The two share a Godfather who introduced them and Smothers has looked up to Austin ever since. After receiving 25 scholarship offers that included Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Miami and Michigan, Smothers committed to West Virginia, believing the Mountaineers program can prepare him for an NFL career as it did for Austin.

He doesn't talk with Austin often, but he pays close attention to what Austin says and what he does on the football field.

"Just watching him, seeing what he does and learning. He showed me things NFL players do with their routes and in practice. Just learning those things and him telling me about West Virginia and what to expect, how it's going to be when I get there and the process. For everything from the football aspect, he's a great person to talk to," Smothers said. "I definitely want to do some of the things he does, which I can't do yet. Yeah, I model my game on him a lot."

Perry Hall coach Keith Robinson said Smothers is the closest player to Austin he's seen come out of this area.

"He just a dangerous, electric athlete," Robinson said. "You look at him and physically, he's certainly not an imposing kid, but I remember him as a freshman returning a punt against us for a touchdown, thinking, 'I've got to deal with this kid for another three years,' and he's gotten better and better each year. He's got a skill set that's just made for the modern spread offense. He's a threat to score every time he catches the ball."

Smothers has the ability to analyze what's going on in a game, slow the play down and make the right decisions, Franklin coach Anthony Burgos said. That patience separates him from a lot of young players.

Last fall, he worked more on becoming the player he wants to be in college. Instead of running right past opponents as he did early in his career, he worked on the technique of route running because his college opponents will be faster.

"This year, he stepped up his game not taking any unnecessary hits," Burgos said. "He got what he needed and took himself out of bounds. He understands when to attack and when not to attack. This year, you saw less freestyling and turning the ball around to run 10 yards backward. He understands that's not going to work at the next level."

Smothers, who has a realistic slant beneath that big-game swagger, knows it won't be easy but he's ready for the next-level challenge that could open the door to the NFL.

He's learned from Austin and from former teammate Jordan Adams, an 2014 All-Metro cornerback now at West Virginia, about what the college game requires.

"When you go to college, it's a different ballgame," Smothers said. "You're probably going to want to quit two or three times, waking up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning even in the offseason just doing workouts every day and during the summer. The work load is 10 times harder than it is in high school."

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During the recruiting process, Smothers said, some coaches didn't stress how hard it's going to be.

"Some coaches made it seem like you can just show up and just do it. No. You've got to show up, put in the work and earn your spot."

While he hopes to take aim at West Virginia's record book in a few years, Smothers leaves his name etched all over Franklin's. He set eight school career records, including 5,407 all-purpose yards, 2,746 receiving yards, 44 receiving touchdowns, 1,018 punt return yards and 65 total touchdowns.

"I think he's going to go down as the most electrifying player that ever came out of this school," Burgos said. "Steven set the bar so high and set so many standards for the young kids who are coming in. He was only the third player that's ever played varsity as a freshman at our school. I think Franklin High School is going to forever understand what Steven did for us and if things pan out the way I think they will, a lot of people are going to look back and say, 'Wow. This kid played here.'"

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