by: Billy Watkins

Deion Smith, rated the No. 1 junior college receiver in the nation in the 2024 class, is expected to join Ole Miss any day now.

         Yes, you’ve probably read that elsewhere before.

         Several times.

         But the calendar has turned to July and Smith can’t afford many more delays. Lane Kiffin’s Rebels open the season Aug. 31 vs. Furman.

         If Smith isn’t academically eligible, there is certainly no reason to panic. Ole Miss’ offense is stacked with quality receivers and if you’re reading this, you probably already know their names — returning wideouts Tre Harris, Jordan Watkins, Ayden Williams and Cayden Lee.  

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         The Rebels picked up Antwane “Juice” Wells from South Carolina, rated the No. 3 receiver in the portal.

         And let’s not forget tight end Caden Prieskorn, who battled injuries and the loss of his father last season. He still caught 30 passes for 440 yards and 4 touchdowns. His performance in the Peach Bowl victory over Penn State was electric: 10 catches, 136 yards and 2 TDs.

         The Rebels added tight end Dae’Quan Wright (6-4, 250) from the portal. In two seasons at Virginia Tech, he caught 47 passes for 574 yards.

         Harris, Wells and Prieskorn were selected first-team preseason All-SEC by Athlon. Jaxson Dart, who led Ole Miss to 19 victories over the past two seasons, will be their trigger man.

         I normally wouldn’t be writing a story about a receiver who might show up this close to the season, especially given the receivers already in Oxford.

         But Smith is different. He is a game changer.

         I recently talked with Lance Pogue, who coached Smith his senior season at Jackson Academy. It was 2020 and Jackson Public Schools had decided to cancel fall sports due to Covid. Smith transferred from Provine High to JA where he caught 36 passes for 640 yards and 7 touchdowns. At Provine the season before, he snagged 43 passes for 1,059 yards (24.6 per catch) and 19 TDs.

Deion Smith Photo by Robert Smith

         He was rated Mississippi’s No. 1 prospect in the 2021 class and a Top 10 receiver nationally. He signed with LSU and caught 11 passes for 186 yards and 2 touchdowns in just six games. His 16.9 yards per catch exceeded teammates Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas — both first-round picks in April’s NFL draft.

         He faced some academic issues and wound up transferring to Holmes Community College last season. In eight games, Smith had 48 receptions for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns. His per catch average was an eye-popping 22.1 yards.

         Since then, Smith has been trying to get eligible.    

         “Deion’s athletic level is off the charts. Out of sight,” Pogue told me. “Six-foot-four. Can run, jump. But what sets him apart is his ability to make any catch. His ability to adjust to a ball in flight, the way he can position his body, is phenomenal. You certainly can’t coach it.

         “To be honest, Deion was like a man among kids when I had him. I know what I saw every day, every week. But when I saw him making those same catches at LSU, it put the stamp on it for me.

Photo credit: Tiger Rag

         “Some receivers have to be open to catch the ball. Deion doesn’t have to be open. He can go up between defenders and get the football. It’s something to watch.

         “And I’ll tell you something else I noticed about him: The stiffer the competition, the better he is. He loves to compete. And he’ll have to jack it up at Ole Miss. But he did it at LSU. He did it at Holmes. He just needs to make sure he’s in shape and learns the offense. But the Ole Miss coaches will fix it to where he won’t be bogged down in scheme. They’ll find a way to get him the football.”

         Receivers who can stress a defense vertically and also be a force in the red zone have never been more valuable.

         “The days of an offense going on a 17-play drive to score are all but gone,” said Pogue, the new head coach at Columbia High School. “You have to be able to score and score quickly. You need a guy with pro potential who has that dynamite explosive ability. Deion has that.”

         Pogue’s comments are strong, but he’s qualified to make them. In 10 seasons at South Panola, more than 100 of his players signed junior college or university scholarships. He knows what an elite player looks like.

         Still, Smith will have to prove his ability and commitment to his coaches and teammates.

         One red flag was when he showed up at his signing day event last December in Jackson driving a Lamborghini. The price for such a vehicle is  approximately $230,000.

         Such a “do what?” moment makes one wonder: If he is eligible, will Smith’s focus be on football and the process it requires to help a team win games in the rugged SEC? Or will it be on the toys the new NIL world of college football offers?

         Answers coming soon.