Birmingham Stallions coach Skip Holtz likes to say that football is the “best reality show on TV,” and it’s hard to argue the point after Saturday night.
In his team’s 28-24 come-from-behind victory over New Jersey, there were three hours full of drama and the hometown fans at Protective Stadium even got a happy ending.
But for quarterback J’Mar Smith, who was called into duty after starter Alex McGough injured his ankle, it was more like a dream come true.
Starting the game 0-for-4 passing, Smith finished with 156 yards through the air and a touchdown toss. The headline, however, was when he capped off the rally with a two-yard, game-winning rushing TD just 29 seconds from the final horn.
“He was really ready when his number was called,” Holtz said. “He stepped in and it took us a couple series to get him into a rhythm, but I thought once he got into a rhythm he was really dialed into the game and focused. I thought he did an excellent job with his reads and the way he threw the ball. Really proud of him.”
That performance was good enough to earn Smith the 2022 USFL’s first-ever Offensive Player of the Week honor.
“I put pressure on myself during the week in practice, but game time it’s just a matter of being ready and getting out there,” Smith said today following practice. “You’ve always got to stay ready and prepare, make sure we get the assignments down, and execute. Coach always told me that when my number was called, it was time to make the offense go.”
Smith played for Holtz at Louisiana Tech, and the Birmingham boss often talks about Smith being a “coach on the field.” Beyond that, he showed he could step up in the role of next man up.
Holtz was the first to tell Smith about his player of the week honors after gathering players together following their Wednesday workout.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to make that announcement before with him in college,” Holtz said. “But to be the first Offensive Player of the Week in the resurrected USFL in 2022 is really cool. I’m happy for him. There’s a guy that came in here, was a backup, accepted his role, supported Alex as the starter, and helped with signals and terminology.
“With me trying to be a head coach, trying to be an offensive coordinator, and trying to be a quarterback coach, he’s been invaluable.”
A Meridian, Mississippi, native, Smith had a decorated career at Tech, winning the Conference USA Player of the Year award in 2019.
But transitioning to a professional career has been more difficult. He was cut from the New England Patriots in 2021 and failed to catch on with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats last year.
The USFL opened up another door.
“I’m telling you … the pregame with the jets going by and the great fans up in the stands and the fireworks – man, it’s a great, humbling experience,” Smith said. “Just the journey I’ve been on and knowing I get to keep playing the game of football means so much.”
With McGough in street clothes on Wednesday and Smith taking all the practice snaps, chances are he’ll get the ball again when Birmingham faces Houston Saturday at 6 p.m. on FS1.
But regardless of his role, Smith wants to make the most of the chance at hand.
“It was just a great opportunity to go and play football again,” Smith said. “But my main thing is we’ve got to win … that’s the overall goal for sure. But you know, individual accolades aren’t possible without the whole team, so I just thank them for everything.”
Coming Friday: Holtz and Smith break down the Gamblers.