Gorman: Pitt catcher has last laugh
Kevan Smith can only chuckle when he hears people say that the best quarterback on Pitt's campus spends his days squatting behind home plate instead of taking snaps under center.
Selected to the All-Big East baseball team this week for the second consecutive season, this time unanimously, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound quarterback-turned-catcher has the look of a major-league prospect. Smith is batting a Big East-best .407 with 11 home runs and 56 RBI — including three solo shots in the first two games of the Big East tournament — while showing off his "plus-plus" arm strength and athleticism.
The fifth-year senior from Seneca Valley has no regrets about signing with Pitt for football, even if the decision to bypass baseball out of high school probably cost him a six-figure signing bonus. Former Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt might feel differently, as his handling of quarterbacks contributed to his eventual firing.
"I'll think about it — I was supposed to be a top-five-rounder in baseball — and wonder what could have been," Smith said by phone Thursday from the Big East tourney in Clearwater, Fla. "But I got to play football and use that scholarship to get an education and then play baseball. It probably cost me some money, but having my (marketing) degree will help down the road."
This is what Smith envisioned when he switched sports midway through his college career, not that it didn't come without setbacks. Football got off to a promising start against Grambling in 2007, when he passed for the most yards (202) in a starting debut by a Pitt freshman — including Dan Marino.
That game was the high point. Smith soon saw his starting status slip away, along with a perfectly placed pass. At Michigan State the following week, Smith threw two interceptions — one a pick-six — and watched wide receiver Oderick Turner drop his throw for the go-ahead touchdown.
The low point didn't come until the next season.
Wannstedt told Smith he would start for the injured Bill Stull at Notre Dame, and Smith took the majority of first-team repetitions in practice. When the Panthers arrived in South Bend, however, Pat Bostick got the starting nod — only to use Smith on the second series, which started at the Irish 20. On first down, he threw incomplete. On second down, Pitt ran the wildcat with LeSean McCoy. On third down, Smith was sacked.
Pitt settled for a field goal, and Smith never saw the field again.
"That was the turn," said Smith, who had only started 12 games at Seneca Valley because of a broken wrist his junior year. "When (the coaches) did that to me — had me starting the whole week, then had me play only two plays — that showed they had no confidence in me."
By the time Wannstedt demoted Smith to fourth string and asked him to change positions after the season, Smith was contemplating a different move. It was the same one made a quarter-century earlier by Chris Jelic, the former Mt. Lebanon quarterback who also played catcher at Pitt and was drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Royals in 1985.
Where Tino Sunseri struggled in his first season as starter last fall, Smith developed into a star under baseball coach Joe Jordano. He ranked among the Big East leaders in hits, runs, doubles, triples, RBI and on-base and slugging percentage this spring.
"That's what scouts like about me," said Smith, who also had 10 stolen bases. "They see more power in my swing, a lot of upside in my talent. ... Every guy says I have top-five or top-10-round talent, but I'm a senior and don't have a lot of leverage."
What Smith does have is the experience of starting at two major-college sports, of knowing that he has faced adversity and overcome it. Those are things that won't show up in scouting reports but do when he looks in the mirror.
That's where Kevan Smith has the last laugh.