DeVonta Smith wakes up every workday morning at 5:30. His alarm goes off — he never hits “snooze” — and by 6 a.m. the rookie wide receiver is in his car, crossing the Delaware River from his South Jersey home and heading toward the Eagles’ practice facility.
He is often the first player at the NovaCare Complex. Quarterback Jalen Hurts sometimes beats him. The former Alabama teammates have a friendly arrival time competition. But Smith isn’t there early for appearances.
His self-discipline won’t allow for him to veer off schedule.
“That’s just me. I’m very, very regimented,” Smith said recently. “Got to get my gains in. I’m not trying to be one of the first players in the building every morning. … That’s just how I’ve always been. I need to get stuff done.”
Whether it’s his early bird tendencies, detailed practice habits, or workmanlike demeanor, Smith has already displayed a professionalism that even grizzled members of the Eagles say is beyond his years. The 23-year-old — his birthday is Sunday — is in many ways a throwback.
But the Eagles have had their share of non-divas over the years. What they have lacked — maybe in decades — is a homegrown receiver who can be mentioned among the best at his position. Smith is not yet in that class. His first nine games in the NFL, while productive, were not without error.
They have offered glimpses, though, of potential greatness. Last Sunday, Smith caught five passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. And he would have caught all six targets and had another score if Hurts hadn’t missed him in the end zone in an eventual loss to the Chargers.
All told, Smith has tallied 38 receptions for 537 yards and two touchdowns. He is on pace to eclipse the 16-game franchise rookie mark for receiving yards (912) set by perhaps the last receiver the Eagles drafted who could be labeled elite: DeSean Jackson.
But the 6-foot, 170-pound Smith seemingly has a higher ceiling. He’s among the skinnier receivers in the NFL, but he’s bigger than the 5-10, 160-pound Jackson and has a dexterity that allows him, even at his size, to run the entire route tree.
“His movement reminds you of the great ones,” Eagles receivers coach Aaron Moorehead said. “Not specific guys. He’s got a unique body type. Very long arms, very long legs, and obviously he has quickness and other [traits] like that.
“I don’t know if I want to do the comparison game yet, but you do see the movement in the lower body, being able to sync in and out of breaks and being able to pluck the ball out of the air. Those are the things you see from the really good receivers, traditionally, over the course of the years of the NFL.
“I do think he’s got that ability. And it’s just a matter of the body continuing to grow.”
Moorehead played alongside two of the better receivers of the last 25 years — Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne — during his time with the Colts. Neither was especially large, but the 6-5 Moorehead saw up close what it took for both 6-footers to thrive at the highest level.
Sure, they had natural on-field ability. But there was also an off-field commitment to gain any edge, something he said he first noticed about Smith just after the Eagles drafted him in the first round.
“His movement reminds you of the great ones.”
“When we first got here in the spring and summer and we’re taking it easy a little bit and I’m getting in the building maybe like 6:45 and he’s there already in the weight room doing his stretching,” Moorehead said. “And I’m like, ‘We don’t do anything for another hour and a half.’ And he’s like, ‘I got to get my body right.’
“He’s just very disciplined. He likes being on a schedule. ‘At 6:15 I’m in the door. At 6:45 I’m in the gym. At 7:15 I’m doing this.’”
Moorehead said he then got up early a few times and beat Smith in to prove a point — Hey, your coach can do this, too — and it was back to his family-oriented schedule. But Smith has stuck to his business-like regimen through his first six months in the NFL.
He’s a self-described homebody. Aside from a few dinners at Chickie’s and Pete’s, the Louisiana native said he hasn’t explored outside his home or the NovaCare Complex since arriving in Philadelphia. During news conferences, he speaks softly and economically.
But behind the scenes Smith has broken out of his shell. The Eagles have released videos that capture his youthful exuberance (a locker room dance after the Week 1 win over the Falcons) or his relative chattiness (mic’d up during the Week 8 win over the Lions).
Fellow receiver Jalen Reagor said that’s Smith being “Smitty”, the side the Eagles see, while his taciturn public face is “DeVonta.”
“We’re not just football players. We all have lives and personalities. ‘Smitty,’ ‘6,’ DeVonta, ‘Slim Reaper,’ ” Hurts said of Smith, citing his various nicknames, “He’s a great, all-around guy.”
The Eagles got to see the more human side of Smith last week after his former college roommate, Henry Ruggs, was charged with driving under the influence in an incident that resulted in death.
Prosecutors said the now-ex-Raiders receiver had a blood-alcohol content of 0.161, twice the legal limit in Las Vegas, and was driving 156 mph two seconds before he hit another car, which killed a 23-year-old woman and her dog.
The incident occurred early Nov. 2 and the Eagles were the first to inform Smith of the tragic details. He spent that Tuesday surrounded by teammates, coaches, and support staff and stayed at the practice facility longer than his schedule normally permits.
When he finally spoke publicly last Sunday, Smith said his “heart breaks for everybody involved, the family of the young lady who lost her life.” While his comments about his best friend triggered some — “He’s in good spirits,” he said of Ruggs — Smith had only recently described his former teammate as his “brother from another mother.”
It’s also important to note his youth, even if his performance last Sunday suggested a lodestar that comes only with advanced age.
“Once you walk on the field everything that isn’t football kind of goes out the window, honestly,” Smith said. “It’s like you have another head space out there and that’s what you focus on.”
Many from Smith’s hometown of Amite, La., would say he got his drive from his mother, Christine Smith-Sylve. But he was also a product of his environment.
Moorehead recalled the first time he met Smith while recruiting for Texas A&M over five years ago. He walked into the small Amite High gym tucked under the football field bleachers and there in the middle was the skinny receiver pumping iron.
“It’s a sweltering, hot Louisiana day. There’s like 20 people in there and there’s no air conditioning. There’s maybe a fan on the side,” Moorehead said during an interview last month. “And these kids are in there just sweating head to toe and lifting like this is the last lift they’re going to have.”
Escaping a small town may certainly light the ambition in any individual, but Moorehead traced Smith’s desire to his state roots. He said he has recruited, coached, and played alongside enough Louisianians — including Wayne — to identify their shared characteristics.
“There’s a toughness, a no-quit mentality in those guys,” Moorehead said. “And that’s who DeVonta is and that’s where he comes from. This isn’t something that happened overnight. This isn’t something that happened once he got to Alabama. This happened when he was a young guy.
“And he hasn’t changed. The guy comes in with an attitude like, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’m meant to be doing, and I’ve been working at this for a very, very long time.’ He’s a very humble guy … but at the same time he knows he’s a very good player.
“All that in one, to me, has always been the guys that are successful.”
It didn’t take long for the Eagles, who traded up two spots to draft Smith at No. 10, to realize what they had in the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. He was, if anything, maybe longer, smarter, and more agile than they had expected.
Coach Nick Sirianni has “teach tapes” he shows his players with exemplary uses of technique. For instance, there might be a fade route from Larry Fitzgerald. But Sirianni didn’t go outside the team to illustrate how a “jab” step should look. He just ran film of Smith (below, bottom).
Sirianni equated Smith’s “jab” to Allen Iverson’s crossover. In fact, he has long shown the former Sixers great’s patented move to receivers as a reference. Smith said he doesn’t specifically emulate Iverson, but he has used his basketball background in his releases.
“I know about his crossover, but he was a little before my time,” Smith said of Iverson. “I had a little something. I was no AI. But, yeah, I try and do stuff like that. I would watch [Bills receiver] Stefon Diggs and he even tried a behind-the-back move.”
Smith might have had a future as a point guard, but he played the 1-4 positions out of necessity. What stands out from his high school hoops highlights is how big he played. He routinely dunked over defenders and outrebounded and blocked taller opponents, while also dishing out no-look passes.
Those abilities transferred to the football field, even if there had always been concerns about Smith’s thin frame. His size, or lack thereof, didn’t affect his playing in the physical SEC, but some questioned whether he could hold up against NFL cornerbacks.
“I think I answered those questions the first game,” Smith said last month. “And now it’s over.”
The Eagles have structured his weight training to their preferences, but Moorehead said the team has been careful not to add too much weight. They don’t want him feeling heavy or dealing with injuries because his body composition changed.
“I think it’s more organic. You let his body grow as it will,” Moorehead said. “But I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a guy who’s 180 pounds. I don’t think that’s going to happen. So why force it?”
Smith struggled to get open against the Cowboys’ man coverage, but Moorehead thought having seen mostly zone coverage in the first two games had more to do with the rookie’s lack of production in Week 3.
But after the loss in Texas, Moorehead did observe a moment when he felt Smith had been burdened by the Eagles’ losses and offensive struggles. He had dealt with losing in other sports but hardly ever in football.
“He was walking through the hallway and I just kind of saw his face. He had this look in his eye,” Moorehead said. “I was like, ‘Come here’ and we talked for a few minutes to just work through a few things. You had to say to him, ‘Things are about to turn. Just keep playing, playing hard, and understand that you’re going to be a big reason this thing gets turned in the right direction.’
“It was getting him to understand the ebbs and flows of an NFL season.”
Smith caught seven passes for 122 yards the next Sunday, but the Eagles lost again to the Chiefs. He also had a touchdown nullified by an illegal touching penalty after he stepped out of bounds.
There have been other struggles. He has pulled in only 4 of 14 contested balls, which has him ranked 82nd out of 98 qualifying NFL receivers, per Pro Football Focus. And he dropped three passes against the Raiders and Lions in Weeks 7-8.
“It was small mistakes,” Smith said last Sunday. “Me not looking the ball all the way in, not concentrating.”
Smith said that before each practice he chooses one area in which he needs to improve. He never focuses on the positives. After the Chiefs game, for instance, he worked on holding his line on “go” routes. Last week, it was securing the ball.
Any great receiver
The Eagles employed a run-heavy attack the last two games, and it has made the offense more efficient. While Smith had only nine targets over that stretch — he caught 1 of 3 passes for 15 yards in Detroit — the Chargers game showed that he still deserves to be option No. 1.
Tight end Dallas Goedert will likely be No. 1A. But Reagor and Quez Watkins could suffer as a result. Watkins has been productive, but Reagor, unlike Smith, has failed to live up to the first-round expenditure.
Philly can be especially tough on underperforming top draft picks. Even just a week ago, there was a simmering talk radio debate about Smith’s prospects after the drops. But local sports fans, who have been desperate for a top-flight receiver, don’t necessarily reject diva receivers.
Jackson is still highly regarded and Terrell Owens, despite all his drama, is still embraced by many. They just want a receiver good enough to catch the ball he often demands, and Smith is no different from most.
“Any great receiver wants the football,” Moorehead said. “You look at him and he’s a quiet guy, but when he gets going, he wants the ball. … I don’t know if I want to call it ‘diva,’ but he definitely wants the ball. And he’s not afraid to tell you that.”
Moorehead said that Smith doesn’t make bold declarations or ask simply to be thrown the ball. His recommendations are based upon how a defense is covering him or which routes may work best against a particular cornerback.
Smith’s early success has been just as much about his football IQ as anything. But he also plays with a quiet confidence that stands in contrast to the outlandish personas of some NFL receivers.
“I don’t think you necessarily have to be like that,” Smith said. “I know some guys feel they have to be like that. That’s what helps them. But you can be quieter or use other things to motivate.”
And what motivates him?
“Just the moment,” he said. “Sometimes in the moment, the thrill of the game, and you’re in a close game, it’s just like, that’s why you want to elevate your game and everyone around you.”
Smith has already asserted himself as a leader among the Eagles receivers. Veteran Greg Ward may have the most authoritative voice, but the rookie is setting the pace on the field and off it, even with the rest of the locker room.
“If you see Smitty and how he conducts himself every day, he’s so accountable, he’s so professional about his routine,” tackle Jordan Mailata said. “My guy has a routine every day. When you see that, especially as a teammate, you respect that a lot. It makes you want to do the same thing.
“It’s a very infectious culture that we’re trying to create.”
Smith arrived at Tuscaloosa with Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy, whom he will see Sunday in Denver. He has said it took a while to break out of his small-town shell, but he has had an easier time adapting to the NFL.
There are various reasons for the ease of Smith’s transition -- his maturity probably the most prominent. But he has changed very little, according to Hurts, Moorehead, and the few other Eagles who had previously known him.
There is the meticulously outfitted, business-like “DeVonta” the public sees. And there is the relaxed, childlike “Smitty” his teammates and coaches see. But, in truth, there isn’t much difference between the two.
Smith is reserved, regimented, and a bit of a recluse. When he wants to eat at home, he still whips up the same jambalaya his mother taught him to cook before he left for Alabama. And he still aims to go to bed at the same hour.
“I’ve been working on 10:30,” Smith said. “But sometimes I’m up till 12.”
“Just lying in bed in my head,” he said, “maybe looking at my phone.”