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‘Time to level up’: Inside DeVonta Smith’s 5 a.m. workouts and how he embraces a future with the Eagles

After a record-setting rookie season, it's back to the hard offseason work for Smith, who trains at the House of Athlete Performance Center in Tampa, Fla.

Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith trains at the House of Athlete Performance Center in Tampa, Fla.
Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith trains at the House of Athlete Performance Center in Tampa, Fla.Read moreKevin Sabitus

TAMPA, Fla. — DeVonta Smith is out of breath. He’s sprawled on the ground with his back lying flat against the all-black turf and his head facing directly toward the bright spotlights affixed across the ceiling. Sweat stains are scattered all over his drenched T-shirt, and the veins running through his legs, arms, and neck are bulging. He’s gulping for air, his arms lifted, mouth wide open and his chest heaving up and down.

There’s a sheer ferocity that comes with being a member of performance coach Yo Murphy’s “Breakfast Club.”

It begins with a 4:30 a.m. alarm for Smith — this structure follows his punctuality from his in-season schedule. During his rookie year with the Eagles, it was a race between Smith, the team’s top wideout, and quarterback Jalen Hurts for first arrival each day at the team facility.

On this morning, though, it’s Smith and Colts four-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard working out together under Murphy’s guidance at the “House of Athlete Performance Center.”

“Gaht damnnnnn!” Smith shouts in Murphy’s direction as he prepares for his final set of mobility and balance drills that will conclude an intense 90-minute session.

By the end of Murphy’s tactically designed workout, Smith is gassed. But Smith keeps pushing because all he knows is attack, attack, attack.

With Rod Wave and Pooh Shiesty lyrics blaring on the speakers and resistance bands strapped around his thighs, Smith jumps to his feet, attaches himself to the wall and begins his last set.

“Smitty — he’s exactly the same every day. That’s part of his plan. Greatness is about consistency,” Murphy said. “He’s really one of those guys.”

Murphy’s gym is located near Tampa International Airport, roughly a 25-minute daily commute for Smith from his offseason home, which he shares with his mentor Vincent Sanders, in Central Florida. Last week, The Inquirer shadowed Smith for a day that consisted of two workouts as he worked to perfect his craft.

Outside of football, Smith is mostly a homebody. The 23-year-old receiver rarely goes out — he is adamant he attended only two college parties at Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Mecca of college football. When he’s not in the kitchen stirring up a seafood boil or reviewing film on his tablet, Smith enjoys watching basketball and playing NBA 2K and Call of Duty: Warzone.

Every so often, though, Smith will visit the local mall, International Plaza and Bay Street. During this specific route to the shopping center, he drives past Raymond James Stadium, site of the Eagles’ final game of this past season. The Eagles went 9-8 and clinched a playoff berth during Smith’s first year, but they were defeated handily by the Buccaneers in the NFC wild-card round.

Does Smith find any extra motivation from temporarily setting up shop in Tampa?

“When I pass the stadium, I’ll look at it and remember ... that was just step one,” he says. “It’s time to level up.”

‘I don’t think he sleep!’

It’s slightly foggy and still dark out at 5:15 a.m. when Smith pulls into a sparse parking lot located in front of a 12,000-square foot warehouse.

Once his sky blue Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon slows and squeezes between a pair of solid white parking lines, it’s easy to notice Smith is the owner of the largest vehicle in the lot.

A few moments after his G-Wagon is situated, the driver’s side door props open and out pops Smith. He’s sporting a gray athletic T-shirt with dark shorts and team-branded slippers with the silver bird logo positioned across the straps, topped with his handy durag and diamond earrings. The 6-foot, 170-pound receiver briefly gazes at his surroundings and walks toward the building’s entrance.

Inside House of Athlete’s new facility — equipped with a dozen Olympic squat racks, eight Keiser strength machines, a handful of Woodway treadmills, and a 40-yard AstroTurf lined down the middle — Murphy is already getting comfortable.

As Smith finds a spot on the floor to begin his stretching routine, Murphy prepares the equipment and weights for this morning’s workout. Leonard is slated for a strength day, while Smith is designated to train mobility — one of the traits needed for a lengthy and successful NFL career. Today marks Week 2 of Smith’s offseason program with Murphy.

“Not everyone is built for the Breakfast Club,” Leonard says before offering himself a sip at the water fountain. “We built different ova’ here! It ain’t for everyone.”

Murphy has spent the past decade in Tampa training athletes spanning across all sports. At the conclusion of his playing career, which included stints with the Buccaneers, Vikings, Rams, Chiefs, and Canadian Football League, Murphy transitioned to mentorship and performance training.

His original company was titled “Yo Murphy Sports Performance,” but he recently merged with six-time Pro Bowl receiver and “House of Athlete” founder Brandon Marshall to help launch the brand’s new location in Tampa. Murphy’s current rotating client list includes 17 NFL draft prospects, 26 MLB players, and 21 NFL players, plus an assortment of college and veteran athletes. Murphy’s clientele includes his former teammate and Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss, new Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber, welterweight boxer Keith Thurman, and Yankees all-time great Derek Jeter.

“I want to develop and grow athletes and people,” Murphy said. “It was just a good fit. We’re ecstatic where we’re at, and Smitty is another piece to this.”

Smith was introduced to Murphy at the conclusion of his senior season, after he shattered numerous NCAA receiving records en route to winning the 2020 Heisman Trophy. He was the first receiver to win the prestigious award as college football’s best player since Desmond Howard in 1991. During Alabama’s 52-24 victory over Ohio State in the 2020 national championship, Smith was named Player of the Game after recording a title-game record 12 receptions, 215 yards and three touchdowns ... all in the first half.

But that’s not enough for Smith. He won at the highest level in college and now he wants to do the same as a professional. His dream is securing multiple big-money contracts. He aspires to take care of his family and won’t pause until he establishes generational wealth.

“Family, that’s everythan’ to me,” Smith says. “I ain’t stoppin’ ‘til they taken care of.”

That’s why it was crucial for him to identify the right trainer as he rehabbed from injury and prepared for the NFL draft. When Smith first met Murphy, he was intrigued by the vision that matched his own.

“You have to find the right person for you, the one who is goin’ to get up early with you and challenge you to the point of your deepest struggles,” says Smith, who majored in exercise science. “No matter what time it is with Yo, he’s goin’ to be up with me.”

He continues with a slight chuckle: “I don’t think he sleep! Whenever I’m ready to go, I know he’s goin’ to be there.”

“You see it in his eyes,” Murphy says of his bond with Smith. “You see it in his effort. It’s inspiring. When I had the opportunity to work with someone like that, work with someone like Smitty, you feel so trusted. Because if a guy is really calculated with every step, his mission, he knows where he wants to be — he’s trusting you with a piece of that.”

‘Keep it professional’

If at any point this past season you’ve watched Monday Night Football or programming on ESPN, chances are Smith has appeared on your television screen.

He’s a featured Therabody athlete, part of a quad of rising receivers along with Seattle’s DK Metcalf, Pittsburgh’s Chase Claypool and Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins. Smith is the face of Dick’s Sporting Goods’ clothing brand, VRST, he’s established equity with the West Chester-based company LifeBrand and Smith is a prominent figure in Nissan’s “Heisman House” scene.

During a recent trip to Dick’s, in which he surprised a youth football team with a holiday shopping spree in Camden, Smith helped the children pick out gifts. At one point, he passed through the basketball section. It’s here where he picked up a child-sized ball and Eurostepped his way towards a hoop. He playfully challenged nearby kids and onlookers to a game of 1-on-1.

Such is the mindset of a nonstop competitor.

Asked by his marketing manager, Evan Anslow, why he hadn’t purchased a hoop yet for his driveway in front of his home in the South Jersey suburbs, Smith offered a quick reply.

“For what?” he says. “I ain’t neva’ home anyways!” This is a nod to him always frequenting NovaCare Complex and not having much time for anything else.

He might be soft spoken, but Smith is direct with his words. He unsolicitedly credits his parents, Christina and Kelvin, and Sanders, for their impact on how he carries himself. He’s an older brother to Christian; the pair of siblings were raised in the small country town of Amite City, La. Those closest to Smith suggest he matured quickly and was considered independent as early as middle-school age.

“That’s always been me,” Smith says. “I play around with certain people. Those are people I know I can play around with, people that I’m comfortable with in my circle. If I’m just strictly business with you, it’s because I’m not as comfortable around you as I want to be. So I keep it professional with basically everyone.”

‘I’m kind of like a magician’

When the Eagles traded up and selected Smith with their top pick in last year’s draft, team executives raved about him.

“DeVonta was standing out on our board,” general manager Howie Roseman said hours after taking Smith with the No. 10 pick. “We wanted to make sure we got him. We really believe he can be a difference maker.”

Throughout his rookie season, Smith looked the part, executing extremely difficult toe-tap catches, placing defensive backs into real-life blender machines and outmuscling larger opponents for leaping grabs. One could even argue Smith wasn’t prioritized nearly enough in Nick Sirianni’s passing offense. Of Smith’s 17 games, he was targeted six or less times in 10 games, including two contests with only four targets and one game with three targets.

But that didn’t stop Smith from surpassing DeSean Jackon’s franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie. Smith finished with 64 catches, 916 receiving yards, and five touchdowns over 17 games. His 14.3 yards per reception ranked second among rookie wideouts behind only the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase.

“Honestly, this record wasn’t one of my goals — I didn’t get my actual goal,” Smith said after the regular-season finale. “It’s my fault I didn’t get [1,000 receiving yards]. I left a lot of stuff out there earlier in the season.”

Jalen Hurts, 23, is on pace to start his second season in his third year with the Eagles. Asked about the lingering criticism facing his quarterback and former Alabama teammate, Smith offers a pointed and candid reply.

“He continues to come in every day knowing that people are going to talk about you, not everyone necessarily agrees with him being there as our starting quarterback,” Smith says. “But he tunes that noise out every day, and he constantly wants to make everyone around him better and make himself better. Like I can’t exaggerate how much he really wants to make us just go. Most people might shy away from that challenge.

“But that’s the type of people you want around you. He embraces it. He continues to come in and do everythan’ he can do. He’s not shy about his mistakes. That’s the type of quarterback you want. Just because there’s problems here and there, he ain’t neva’ goin’ to run from it. None of us are running from it.”

The Inquirer’s meetup with Smith occurred last week — after the Haason Reddick signing.

“It makes me happy seeing moves like that,” Smith says. “Getting guys to help our team. We’re always excited about that. New people, new brains to pick, guys who have succeeded at other places. That’s always amazing. Hopefully [the front office] ain’t done yet.”

Since then, the Eagles agreed to a deal with wide receiver Zach Pascal in free agency. Pascal is another client of Murphy’s and a likely candidate to start at slot receiver, while Smith will remain as the team’s No. 1 receiver, a role he looked entirely comfortable in during his rookie season.

“He’s phenomenal,” left tackle Jordan Mailata said of Smith. “You’d think he’s been in the league for years. People give him [crap] for his size...he’s a leader.”

Smith is a pristine route-runner. His secret sauce: make every release and route tree look exactly the same. While it might sound simple, this is a formula Smith has mastered. It begins with his release off the line of scrimmage.

Leading up to his releases, Smith strives to maintain perfect head control. He keeps his helmet centered and locks eyes with the opposing cornerback — before and after the snap — which helps hide the tell of his routes. When opposing corners can’t guess what direction he is about to turn, their stances often widen. Then it’s time for Smith to attack and follow through with his renowned footwork.

“I’m kind of like a magician,” Smith describes. “I’m a receiver, so why not want to be the best receiver?”

‘Jus’ know I’m gon’ attack!’

Back at House of Athlete, Smith, Murphy, and Leonard are about finished with their early-morning session. Leonard’s eyes are misting. Smith has sweat pouring from his forehead.

“Good [stuff], brudda,” Leonard tells Smith while extending a fistbump. “Way to work.”

Smith heads home to shower and find some grub, although the grind isn’t quite finished.

He’s able to finesse in a brief 45-minute nap before the second part of his two-a-day workout begins. Needing another alarm, this one set for 8:30 a.m., Smith awakens and drives to a nearby football field, where Murphy is waiting for his pupil. On deck is a plethora of on-field workouts that maintain the day’s focus on mobility. From speed drills and static jumps to dynamic stretching and sprints, Smith is again ready to attack.

Murphy keeps a watchful eye, barking out instruction between each drill and movement.

“That’s the person you want training you because that’s how I am,” Smith says. “His attention to detail, he points out the little things that I don’t even recognize when I’m squatting and I might be shifting too much to the right or if I’m leaning my hips too much, stuff I don’t recognize that he recognizes. It helps a lot.”

“The atmosphere Yo creates here is special, man,” says former Penn and current Chiefs wide receiver Justin Watson, who trains regularly with Murphy. “The NFL can sometimes feel individualistic, so it’s really unique. It’s a team here and Yo notices everything. ...DeVonta is such a hard worker. He doesn’t give up a single thing, doesn’t slow down at all — he keeps going.”

Smith’s intensity is driven from the moment he breaks from the huddle and squares up against an opponent. During these moments, he applies all he’s got. Back to his non-stop motor emptying his lungs. Back to the veins popping and the sweat pouring. Back to the grind of becoming one of the best receivers.

Right before the snap, he’ll premeditate his route and think aloud in his head, “Why is this DB even lined up against me? I want to torch him.” And when Jason Kelce snaps the ball back to Hurts, immediately, Smith is eager to pounce.

“I love Philly,” Smith says. “I love the fan base and everythan’ about it. Them makin’ me feel like it’s home. That’s amazing just to be able to have them behind you, supporting you, but also makin’ sure that you know when they’re upset with you. I’m embracing this city and everythan’ that comes with it.

“Jus’ know I’m gon’ attack!”