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Pope, Smith keep focus on the field during uncertainty

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

When Stockbridge played on the road at Spalding on September 17, it was the type of game that Tigers senior Marcellas Pope relished.

Spalding had the type of individual players that should have given it a decided advantage. It had defensive tackle Chris Mayes, a 6-foot-5, 295-pound senior verbally committed to the University of Georgia. It had running back Zay Sharp, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior verbally committed to the University of Lousiville.

In Mayes and Sharp, Spalding had players with remarkable size for their positions, players that had caught the attention of major colleges not necessarily because of their production on the field, but for their potential.

And that gets under Pope's skin.

"When we play other schools," Pope said, "and I hear about how he's committed to such and such, and I look at the film and I'm like, 'I'm better than him' -- it just motivates me a little more."

So on that day, Pope played motivated. He put forth a performance that was both remarkable and typical of his play this season. He rushed for a touchdown and returned a punt for another score. Stockbridge won, 20-14, for its first region win on the season, and Pope had outplayed two players with a college future secure.

"That felt good," Pope said.

Mayes and Sharp had lost, but their scholarship offers remained intact.

Pope had won, but his future in college football was no more certain than before.

The hardest part

According to Rivals.com, there are 85 seniors in the state of Georgia who have already made a verbal commitment to play college football at a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) or Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) school.

Five of those players are right here in the Southern Crescent -- North Clayton's Amarlo Herrera (Georgia), Ola's Ra'Chard Pippens (Stanford), ELCA's Christian Reeves (Virginia Tech) and Matt Rochell (Air Force) and Union Grove's Ed Wilkins (Southern Miss).

They have security. Their plans are made. Their future is in focus.

Countless more players will go through this season, week by week, wondering what their future holds. They may have impressive statistics. Many make the difference between a win and a loss for their team with their play. But they will go through a nerve-raking waiting game as the season goes on wondering if an offer will come.

Consider Dutchtown running back Mychael Brown. The senior has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of the Bulldogs' six games and scored a touchdown in each game. Dutchtown is undefeated in great part because of Brown's production.

No offers.

Consider Henry County senior Stephon Brown. The senior wide receiver and defensive back spent the summer travelling across the college camp circuit. He won MVP awards at several camps for his performance against other top talent.

No offers.

They must wait, and that is the hardest part.

"The kids are anxious," Mt. Zion coach Jamie Aull said. "The mommas and the daddys are probably more anxious than they are. It's just a situation where you've just got to keep your mind off it."

Fighting the odds

Why don't some players with impressive production on high school fields get the same attention as players that receive a torrent of FBS scholarship offers? The reasons are numerous.

Pope fights several. For one, he's only 5-foot-8, and for someone who projects as a slot receiver at the college level, that's a few inches shorter than the ideal size for major colleges.

"I can't help that," Pope said. "That's something that I can't control. I just use what I have and I use it to my advantage."

"Being 5-foot-8 doesn't help," Stockbridge coach Kevin Whitley said. "He can't go to every school at (the FBS) level."

Stockbridge's history doesn't help, either. The Tigers have no state titles to their history, no region titles and just one winning season in the past 15 years.

Pope is a touchdown waiting to happen. He has scored in every way possible this season -- running, catching, returning punts and kicks and intercepting passes.

But Pope's school doesn't have pedigree. Whitley said that when college recruiters pick between two equally talented players, they often choose the one that comes from a winning background, which hurts Pope.

Major colleges covet speed, and Pope has that. He ran the 40 in 4.3 seconds at an Under Armour combine this summer, which got some attention. Michigan called. So did a few other FBS schools.

They called because speed continues to be a valuable asset as more and more college offenses move to the spread offense. Whitley said Pope has the speed to get by defenders on the outside, the kind of elite speed that is exhilirating to watch.

"I think he could play Division I at Florida. I think he could play at Georgia," Whitley said. "I think offenses like Florida would fit his skill set, which is run and catch, sweeps, running bubble screens, getting him the ball in the passing game."

But the only colleges that have expressed solid interest in Pope are FCS schools -- Charleston Southern, the Citadel, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina and Western Kentucky.

That doesn't bother Pope.

"Everybody wants to play at the Division I level," Pope said. "But I wouldn't mind playing at any school, as long as I can play at the next level."

A sleeper prospect

Austin Smith feels the pressure.

He knows he is 6-foot-3, with great hands and a knack for making big plays that can alter the course of a game. He knows he has physical tools that could make him the first one in his family go to a major college to play sports.

Before this season, few knew of Smith. Like Pope, he suffered under anonymity at a moribund program. College coaches rarely made appearances during his three years at Forest Park.

Since Smith transferred to Mt. Zion the spring of his junior year, all that has changed.

Surrounded by other prospects, Smith has begun to get noticed.

"Once I got here," Smith said, "I got noticed a lot more. As soon as I got here, I started meeting (college) coaches every other day."

Smith has become a dangerous threat in Mt. Zion's passing game. Through the first five games, Smith had 14 catches for 253 yards and three touchdowns, averaging over 18 yards catch. He also had two interceptions. Against Lovejoy, he caught a 91-yard pass for a score that rejuvenated the Bulldogs after falling behind 21-0.

"He definitely has Division I talent," Aull said. "I mean there's no doubt about it. He's got the size, the speed and he can make players. It's just a question of whether will he get that late offer, or will he end up somewhere at a midmajor like Memphis or Marshall or somewhere like that? It's tough to really call right now."

So, like so many others, Smith waits.

He hears from schools now and then. Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Tennessee Tech. He feels the process building up just like he imagined when he transfered to Mt. Zion.

But Smith tries to push those thoughts away. There will be no offers, Smith said, if he doesn't perform.

Smith does his best to play the waiting game.

"You think about it a lot," Smith said. "You want (a scholarship offer) to happen, but you've got to let everything happen, let everything fall into place."