Kaleb Smith has always bet on himself.
In high school, he was committed to play wide receiver at Wake Forest. The plan was to graduate in December of 2017 and enroll early, giving him time to adapt to college. But that didn’t happen.
Everything changed that November. The Demon Deacons didn’t have the slot to accompany Smith’s plan due to some eligibility or scholarship reasons, so he took a step back and reconsidered all options. Soon, Virginia Tech came into the picture.
Smith flipped to the Hokies and then-wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins, but it was a preferred walk-on role. And though his parents helped him live in Blacksburg and attend Tech, it wasn’t always easy. He often slept at a friend’s place during his first year because he couldn’t pay rent.
Still, Smith worked at his craft. That soon led to a scholarship offer in a team meeting from Justin Fuente in July of 2019, right before the start of his second season.
“It was just an unreal moment,” Smith said at the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte on Thursday. “First thing I wanted to do was go out there and call mom and dad and say, ‘we did it, it’s, it’s here,’ but then that feeling passed pretty quickly.”
His career took another turn in November of 2020, though, when he tore the front part of his labrum against Pitt. After Hendon Hooker threw an interception at the start of the second half, he tackled Jason Pinnock and fell on his shoulder, ending his season. He missed five-and-a-half months and was finally back on the field in May of 2021.
Even though he saw the field more after that, the ups and downs continued. He was a favorite target of Braxton Burmeister at the start of 2021, pulling in three catches vs. Middle Tennessee and a career-high six at West Virginia while wearing Frank Beamer’s No. 25 jersey. But his numbers decreased over the following months, and despite scoring touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against Duke and Miami, he did not post more than two receptions in each of the last ten games.
Then came Fuente’s departure, which filled the program with uncertainty. Smith wasn’t sure if his future was in Blacksburg, though he didn’t want to leave the place he loved. Yet, he was rubbed the wrong way when his position coach at the time suggested he transfer down to the FCS or Division II level.
With his confidence shaken, he was overjoyed when Brent Pry was named the head coach in December. The addition of Fontel Mines as the new wide receivers coach, someone the Smith family had previous connections to — Kaleb’s cousin, Kerry Wynn, played at Richmond when Mines was an assistant there — was also rejuvenating.
“I mean, he’s a winner,” Smith said of Pry. “And I feel like when you have that guy calling the shots, winning and his players are in the highest regard. Speaking for myself, you don’t want to play for anybody other than that because in the day, that’s what matters. That’s what we all came here to do.”
The addition of offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen was also eye-opening. Their first interaction occurred when Bowen walked into a team meeting.
“He came into the team meeting room and paused,” Smith recalled. “He looked around the room and said, ‘there’s enough talent in this room to reach the [program’s] goals and win championships.’
“The OC that’s making the plays, designing this offense, genuinely believes that there is enough talent in that room. If that’s coming from them, then shoot, the players, we believe in that too.”
Everything seemed to come together for Smith in Virginia Tech’s spring game on April 16. In the first opportunity to play in front of fans under the new regime, he caught three passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came just over two minutes apart in the first quarter, and both were deep balls — 47- and 51-yard receptions, respectively.
It was a breath of fresh air for Smith. He felt like a butterfly that had been kept in a drawer for three years — he already had his wings; he just didn’t have the chances to prove it. His excitement and relief were evident when he received an excessive celebration penalty after his second touchdown. Pry pulled him aside, and Smith apologized.
“Look, I’m gonna be honest: I’ve been waiting to do this for three-and-a-half years, four years,” Smith said. “I got excited.”
That game was the break he had been waiting for his entire career; he felt like a kid on Christmas.
“It took weight off my shoulders,” Smith said. “I’m sure I took weight off the coaching staff’s shoulders, too. You don’t have to have that uncertainty anymore because with Tre [Turner] and Tayvion [Robinson] leaving, everyone’s like, ‘well, what do we have now? Kaleb’s been here, but hasn’t done anything.’ It was a lot of uncertainty, and the spring game changed that.”
For the first time in a while, Smith is having fun playing football again. He’s working his tail off, but enjoying being himself at the same time. On top of that, he said the receiver room is the most tight-knit it’s been since he arrived in Blacksburg.
With his confidence restored, he has a list of goals for the season. At the top is winning a bowl game. He joined the program after the Hokies had won three of their last four appearances and had the longest active streak in the nation. In his time on the team, they’ve lost three in a row.
Individually, following in his family’s footsteps to the NFL is the dream. Smith feels like that path, along with earning some accolades at wide receiver this year, is achievable under the new coaching staff.
An in-state kid from Bumpass, Va., he understands the pillars that Virginia Tech football was built on. Once a walk-on, he’s now a veteran. There’s a reason he was one of three players chosen to represent his school in front of the national media.
With a jolt in confidence, Smith is going to continue to bet on himself — this time playing for a program that feels the same way.
“I think he’s one of the more determined guys on our roster,” Pry said of his experienced wide receiver. “He’s a worker, and I love his length. He covers ground. He’s one of those guys, I don’t give a crap what his 40 time is, because I know when I put the film on, he’s a threat with the ground he covers.
“He caught my attention early. Big, long guy that was outworking everybody in winter workouts. That showed me something right out of the gate.”