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Georgia Tech's DeAndre Smelter Takes the Unbeaten Path to NFL Draft

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMarch 29, 2015

Georgia Tech's DeAndre Smelter, left, celebrates,  after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Clemson, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

Oftentimes in life, one door slams shut and another swings wide open.

The strongest among us overcome the closed opportunity and take full advantage of the next one. Georgia Tech receiver and NFL draft hopeful DeAndre Smelter fits comfortably in this category, and he's now just a month or so away from being drafted by a second professional league in only five years.

His path to the NFL draft has been the most uncommon of journeys. 

A three-sport high school star but an All-American on the diamond, Smelter enrolled at Georgia Tech for baseball, not football. He was so well regarded as a pitcher coming out of high school that the Minnesota Twins selected him in the 14th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. But like many mid-level picks coming out of high school, Smelter doubled-down and went to college—hoping to improve his stock at Georgia Tech before making the jump to the pros. 

"Coming out of high school, I was dead set on baseball being my ticket," Smelter said, via David Hale of ESPN.

CHICAGO - AUGUST 8: DeAndre Smelter of the Baseball Factory pitches against Team One  during the  Under Armour All-American Baseball game on August 8, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jim Prisching/Getty Images)
Jim Prisching/Getty Images

A few strong years at the collegiate level and his future would have been set in stone, with his rare ability to throw a baseball past hitters serving as the driving force of his career. He looked a million times more likely to take the mound at Wrigley Field than hear his name called at April's NFL draft in Chicago. 

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Smelter would soon learn life has a nasty curveball, too. 

Lingering shoulder issues made his greatest asset a challenge. He pitched in just four games as a sophomore after a strong freshman season, and his junior year consisted of 16 mostly frustrating innings. His baseball dreams suddenly fading, Smelter took a chance and gambled on one of his former loves: football. 

And just like that, the next great Georgia Tech receiver was born.  

The transformation wasn't an easy one. In fact, Smelter's football success story remains hard to fathom. 

While an all-state defensive back in high school, Smelter dropped the sport during his senior year to focus on baseball. In other words, he spent a full four years away from the game before attempting his unlikely comeback.

"Not many people can play football in high school, then play baseball and not play football for a while and then go back and play football," Smelter told the school's official athletic site. "I just look at it as a blessing...I think it just goes to the fact of how competitive I am. Anything I do I want to be good at it."

His re-entry to football represented the polar opposite of his baseball arrival. A can't-miss recruit in his last sport, Smelter was suddenly the lowest of the low to begin his time on the gridiron. 

"I started off being No. 112 [on the roster]," Smelter said, via Hale. "I had to earn everything I got." 

And earn he did.  

Smelter took up the challenge of playing a new position (receiver) and appeared in all 13 games (starting eight) in 2013, his first year back in football. He caught 21 passes for 345 yards and a team-high four scores within Georgia Tech's triple-option based offense. 

After one final attempt at baseball offered nothing, Smelter quit the team and focused solely on football—where he'd make another big splash during the 2014 season. 

His 12 starts resulted in 35 receptions for 745 yards and seven touchdowns, plus another score on a 75-yard reverse. He could have threatened a 1,000-yard receiving season had he not torn his ACL in the final game of Georgia Tech's regular season. Smelter eventually missed the ACC Championship Game against Florida State and Georgia Tech's bowl game versus Mississippi State.

The rehab from injury is just another hurdle for the high-jumping Smelter to clear.

"I'm about three months out right now," Smelter said at Georgia Tech's pro day back on March 16. "I'm doing a lot of stuff, just strengthening, trying to get my leg back to where it was before. They're doing a good job with me here at Tech with my rehab process and trying to keep me in shape so when I do get recovered I can hit the ground running."

Three months would give Smelter a return timetable around the middle of June. Even if there are complications, he could still be close to 100 percent for an NFL training camp in August. The injury certainly hurt his draft stock, but ACL tears are no longer the career-altering moments of the past. 

Establishing his value for April's draft is a difficult task. 

Smelter can't be considered equal to Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas or Stephen Hill, three former Georgia Tech receivers who were taken high in their respective drafts. But there's little doubting that he's a draftable player in a class rich at receiver. 

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network considers him a "late value pick," noting his impressive after-the-catch abilities: 

Daniel Jeremiah @MoveTheSticks

Georgia Tech WR DeAndre Smelter is outstanding after the catch. He can make you miss, break tackles or run away from you. Late value pick.

While Smelter will be compared to the Georgia Tech receiving finds of the past, Lance Zierlein of NFL.com has a potentially more accurate comparison for the former baseball star.

"Like Eric Decker, Smelter is a former baseball player with outstanding hand-eye coordination," Zierlein wrote in his draft profile. "Both will have entered the draft with questions lingering about a season-ending injury (Lisfranc for Decker)."

Decker was selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. He was also drafted twice by MLB teams after a productive career as an outfielder at the University of Minnesota. His five years in the NFL have included two with over 1,000 yards receiving. 

Smelter, meanwhile, became just the 21st receiver at Georgia Tech to eclipse 1,000 career receiving yards. And he accomplished the feat in only two seasons and 20 starts.

Once on the verge of a future in baseball, Smelter reinvented himself in the game of football. He will likely hear his name called during the 2015 NFL draft next month, a moment which will mark the culmination of a unique but inspiring path to the highest levels of a sport he originally put on the back burner. 

His recovery from ACL surgery ensures nothing will come easy. But if DeAndre Smelter has proved anything, it's that obstacles in his path are only temporary. He will find a way, like he always has. 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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