MOBILE, Ala. – If you're looking for someone to root for at the 2011 Senior Bowl, look no further than South Alabama wide receiver Courtney Smith.
On the football side of things, Smith is a promising talent who more than measures up to NFL standards at the wide receiver position (6-foot-4, 220 pounds). He's also the first Senior Bowl representative in South Alabama history, and like all small-school prospects, eager to prove he belongs among the nation's best.
But his path to the Senior Bowl was far from typical, even by a small-school player's standards, making his trip to Mobile all the more special.
After establishing himself as one of the best high school players in the state of Louisiana, Smith and his family were forced to relocate after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
He spent months without hearing from his parents after the storm hit. Relocation forced him to spend time in Texas, but ultimately he found a home playing football at Prattville High School in Alabama.
From there, Smith accepted a scholarship at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and in 2006 appeared in 11 of the team's 12 games. But Smith's stay at UAB didn't last long, and he ended up transferring away from two colleges before finding the right fit at South Alabama.
When South Alabama started its football program in 2009, it hired Bill Clark, Smith's high school coach, to run the defense. Clark contacted Smith about becoming a Jaguar, and the stats say Smith made the right choice.
He finished his two-year South Alabama career as the Jaguars' all-time leading receiver and caught a pass in all 17 games he played. In all, Smith totaled 58 receptions for 1,065 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"I had to go through a whole lot of extra stuff that people didn't have to go through, but I still made a way for myself," Smith said. "Nothing ever gets me down. I'm a person who is going to fight no matter what."
And despite playing against several lesser-known programs, Smith's big body and big-play ability didn't go unnoticed.
That's why he's on the South roster.
He also takes satisfaction in knowing there's an even playing field this week. Small-school wideouts have had success in Mobile, and Smith wouldn't mind following in the footsteps of another physical receiver who entered the league with little fanfare (Terrell Owens in 1996 out of Tennessee-Chattanooga).
"It doesn't matter what school you went to. If you can play, you can play," Smith said. "If you're a hard-worker, you compete and have a great attitude, you'll be fine. I don't look at the small school thing. I'm going to compete against whoever."
And while Smith isn't the center of attention this week in Mobile, he's received a lot of praise from the local fans. Most die-hard Alabama football fans even have a soft spot for Smith and his story.
Their support is not lost on him either.
"They've shown me a lot of love and I appreciate that," Smith said. "I have to represent for Alabama and my school."
Smith hopes to represent himself as one of the best wide receivers in this year's draft. He's making it clear to teams that this is where he belongs.
"I'm showing my love for the game out here and I don't mind telling them that it's my No. 1 option in life – that's how much I love it. All my hard work is going into this."
And if the attention continues to go to the players with recognizable helmet decals and BCS conference affiliations, that's fine with Smith.
It just gives him another opportunity to fight his way to the top.
"I'm a very hard worker and I'm committed to do what I do," he said. "When the eyes aren't on me, I'm going to work hard regardless. I'm committed to it, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes."