Xavier Smith finished his high school playing career without much attention or fanfare. His dreams of playing football at a higher level appeared bleak.
He didn’t have the snazzy statistics like some other prospects, and at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, he didn’t pass the eye test either.
“I really didn’t receive any offers coming out of high school,” Smith said.
And now, he’s hoping his dreams will become a reality during the 2023 NFL draft (April 27 on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+) after recently completing his college career at Florida A&M.
In fact, the wide receiver prospect has already caught the eye of Steve Smith Sr., who had a famed NFL career at wide receiver while also standing at 5-9.
“He’s a big-time player,” Smith Sr. said on his Cut To It podcast. “If he played at a bigger school, a Power 5, he’d be a top-20 pick.”
But Smith, 25, almost gave up on it all.
Coming out of high school, Smith sent direct messages on social media to a number of junior college coaches. He even put together a highlight reel and emailed it to over a hundred more coaches across the country. But nothing seemed to work.
“I was really done with the sport as a whole,” Smith said. “It was out of frustration, and I was looking at it like maybe football isn’t what God had in store for me.”
With a lack of interest from colleges, Smith started working for Amazon in 2016. However, some words of encouragement changed his outlook on the direction of his life.
“It’s going to happen in God’s timing,” Smith’s mother, Angenetta Sanchious, told him.
AFTER A YEAR of stacking pallets and getting shipments out at Amazon, Smith’s mom suggested applying to her alma mater, Florida A&M, a Division I HBCU located just a few miles away from Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida. His coworkers echoed her sentiments to go to school, an opportunity that would allow him to walk-on and fulfill his dream.
Before Smith aspired to NFL heights, he had dreamt of playing for Florida A&M. He wanted to be a part of the annual in-state rivalry game between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman that dates back to 1978.
“Growing up, we always went to the Florida Classic,” Smith said. “I got a chance to watch FAMU when I was 7, 8 years old. There was always a big crowd, so I would always tell myself ‘One day I want to play there.’ That was my dream, to play at FAMU.”
The university’s response wasn’t the acceptance letter Smith had hoped for, but, instead, an offer for a six-week summer bridge program to gain admission.
Smith passed his bridge classes, but making the football team would be another hurdle. Smith went to all of the summer practices as an observer as his brother, Kareem, played wide receiver on the team. But Smith couldn’t try out until the first day of classes.
When that day came, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry was already familiar with Smith because of Kareem, who was going into his senior year.
But once the younger Smith got out on the field, Jerry was able to see what Kareem had been telling him all along. Smith’s speed and quickness made him a believer, and Jerry became influential in converting him to wide receiver from running back (the position he played in high school).
That decision paid off quickly, as Smith excelled in practice as a member of the scout team during his first season in 2017. Smith used that redshirt year as a “free year to get better.”
“My first fall camp was his first,” said teammate Isaiah Land, who’s considered the No. 1 HBCU draft prospect. “First, he was over on the scout team, so I wanted to see if he was good or not. I saw it in him and knew he was going to be special. It was a matter of time before everyone else saw it.”
Smith’s chance came when coach Willie Simmons took over the program before the 2018 season. Smith’s talent at the time was visible, but it was tough to measure, however, because no one kept stats during practice.
When Simmons built a tentative depth chart based on recommendations from people around the program, he had Smith pegged as a second-team outside receiver.
“That lasted about 15 minutes,” Simmons said with a laugh. “Seeing him move around, we knew he was going to be one of our top receivers. From that second day on, he was one of the guys.”
It’s also a reason that Smith went from walk-on to a scholarship player that year. Patience, as his mom had preached, had paid off.
“Whenever my time came she told me to make the most of it,” Smith said. “It was built up for so long. I was just ready to let loose.”
SMITH’S FIRST CATCH was a 7-yard reception on a bubble screen against Fort Valley State. Later that game he scored his first touchdown on a seam route.
He finished the 2018 season with 48 receptions for 668 yards and four touchdowns, and his true breakout season came the following year when he posted 71 catches for 1,159 yards and 11 touchdowns.
That season is when Smith realized that an NFL future was possible. Smith’s best game that season came against Delaware State when he had nine receptions for 184 yards and four touchdowns, giving him national recognition.
“I knew after those four touchdowns, that was the single-game record for my school,” Smith said. “I ended up being on ESPN with Joey Galloway giving me the helmet sticker.”
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference canceled fall football in 2020 amid the pandemic, resuming play in the fall of 2021 when Smith recorded 64 receptions for 713 yards and four touchdowns. In 2022, he was named an HBCU All-American with a career-high 87 receptions for 1,021 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior.
Smith concluded his collegiate career in the game he dreamed about all of his life, where he had five catches for 73 yards in the Rattlers’ 41-20 win over Bethune-Cookman in the Florida Classic. He would also go on to score his final touchdown of his career on a 32-yard pass from Jeremy Moussa.
When Smith faced off against some of the schools that ignored or rejected his high school highlight films, it fueled his fire.
“I wanted to prove to them that I belong,” Smith said. “I took it personally because I felt like the guys that were on their team were the guys that they chose over me.”
Then, in February at the HBCU combine in New Orleans, NFL scouts and personnel saw his speed and quickness in person.
“Most teams that we talked to knew of him,” Smith’s agent, Rasheeda Liberty, said. “That’s a great thing for a small-school guy. Teams felt his production gave him a name, but they wanted to see how he would test.”
Smith’s blazing 4.38 and 4.39 second times in the 40-yard dash elicited smiles on the scouts’ faces. The time of 4.38 would have been tied for the fourth fastest among receivers at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
His in-person workouts and measurables transferred to the field tests where Smith caught everything thrown his way.
Scouts noticed Smith took part in the field testing without his gloves, which is rare because most receivers wear gloves to be able to catch the ball easier. Smith forgot to pack them but wasn’t going to let that stop him from showcasing his talent in front of representatives from 30 (out of 32) NFL teams.
“He’s an advanced route runner with speed, quickness and the ability to set up defenders,” one scout told ESPN. “He consistently gets open and has ball skills. Whoever takes him on Day 3 or as an undrafted free agent will get a tremendous playmaker.”
During the week of practice following the combine leading up to the Legacy Bowl, an All-Star game exclusively for HBCU prospects, Smith interviewed with 21 teams and was named offensive MVP of the game with six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
ALL OF THE gaudy college numbers were just a cherry on top of Smith’s true driving force.
Seeing his now retired mother take care of him, his brother and two sisters on her own served as motivation for Smith to push his way to the big leagues.
“Just seeing the hard work that she put in and all of the sacrifices she made for us to be successful, it gave me that extra motivation to want to take care of her for the rest of her life,” Smith said.
Seven years removed from high school, Smith’s focus has shifted to the NFL, but he was honest about his journey as a pro prospect: “I’d be lying if I said I saw this [opportunity].”
His path from high school to Amazon to Florida A&M and ultimately to this point has been far from typical. But Smith feels it has prepared him for the next step.
“I’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations to get here,” Smith said. “I know in the NFL there will be a lot of things you go through. It can only get better in my opinion. Whatever comes with it, I’m ready for it.”