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Heskin Smith’s Virginia Story

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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A highly-touted prospect from coastal Georgia, Heskin Smith has leaders to follow both near and far.

Just being able to go out on the field with my teammates, just being able to help and contribute to the team...
~Heskin Smith

As Virginia cornerback Heskin Smith prepares for the ACC Championship Game with defending national champion Clemson, he does so with momentum and motivation alike. Smith, fresh off eight tackles in helping the Cavaliers beat rival Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years, has emerged as one of Virginia's defensive playmakers in recent weeks. He, now healthy himself, continues to help fill in admirably for injured All-American Bryce Hall. A highly-touted prospect from coastal Georgia, Smith has leaders to follow both near and far.

Hall, one of the best cornerbacks in the game, has been an important example for Smith, a multi-faceted athlete with tremendous upside in the secondary. First-team All-ACC in 2018 and a national awards contender, Hall entered this season with All-American expectations, attention he was warranting before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Miami. Even still, Hall is projected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick in the spring. Moving into more of a starring role, Smith has benefited greatly from Hall's insight and expertise. The two cornerbacks have worked closely together as Virginia has chased a conference title. 

Smith has looked to Hall for guidance and growth.

"I'm in the film room just about everyday with Bryce, he has helped me a lot," Smith explained. "He's pretty much my big brother, my big mentor. Just being around him throughout the day, him teaching me to be a student of the game, critiquing film of my opponent, has really helped me on the field, so I thank him for that."

Smith had to overcome his own adversity to get to where he is. Injuring his knee against Notre Dame, Smith had surgery mid-season and missed Virginia's next four games. He rehabbed, remained focused and is now one of the Cavaliers most important defenders. Playing his best football since returning to the field, Smith has stepped onto the big stage and shined; after a leading performance in the win over Virginia Tech, the ACC Championship Game and a potential Orange Bowl bid now await.     

With the spotlight on him, Smith, a team-centered talent, is simply taking it all in.

"Just being able to go out on the field with my teammates, just being able to help and contribute to the team," Smith reflected. "Coming off a lateral meniscus, missing half of the season, it was just a good feeling, playing out there, when I came back."

The triumph over Virginia Tech was a meaningful one for Smith. Playing at home, in one of the most-anticipated games in a generation, the Cavaliers won a thrilling back-and-forth contest over their archrivals on a football Friday, clinching a spot in the ACC Championship Game along the way. Smith tied a career-high in total tackles in the victory over the Hokies with eight. His individual development has proved key in helping Virginia clinch its first-ever division title.

Returning from injury against home state foe Georgia Tech, then having a breakout showing in a win over Liberty, Smith's progression has been accelerated upon his return. Saturday was a springboard for he and his team.

"Man, you don't know the half," Smith smiled when discussing Virginia's win over Virginia Tech. "It's a great feeling around here, that we beat them for the first time in a long time. I wasn't a part of the 15 years before, but I was part of the last two. Being a part of the team that beat Virginia Tech, it's a great feeling. That was one of our goals."

Creating his own legacy, Smith, even going back to the beginning, is surrounded by producers and pioneers.

A 5'11'' cover corner, Smith is following a path that starts directly in his hometown and leads all of the way to football's highest level. While college programs might debate who is "DBU", the "DBHS" distinction might be a little more clear. Smith is the next-in-line from Brunswick High, a school located halfway between Jacksonville and Savannah in Georgia's Golden Isles. The Pirates have three defensive backs currently in the NFL, all, interestingly enough, with the Detroit Lions: All-Pro Darius Slay, Super Bowl Champion Justin Coleman and Tracy Walker.  

Their collective footsteps are ones Smith follows. As he steps up on the big stage in the ACC Championship Game, he does so having watched and studied those who came before him.

"That's my motivation, you know? Those three guys playing on the same team, playing for the same high school. It's motivation, just giving me the courage to keep chasing my dream," Smith shared. "Maybe I'll be playing on the same team as them one day."

Boosted by a leading performance and a signature win, Smith is now preparing for Clemson and beyond. The bright lights, with, in some ways, Smith's career coming full circle, are what he has worked towards his whole career. With Smith back healthy, Virginia has won four games in a row. Playing the defending national champions with the ACC title on the line, this next contest is a chance years in the making.

Smith will soon line up against the likes of Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins, with the Tigers, on a historic 27-game winning streak, boasting one of the most dynamic offenses in all of college football. Clemson currently ranks fourth nationally, scoring 45.3 points per game, ranking third in the country with 541.8 total yards per game. The opponent, like the opportunity, is one Smith has great respect for.  

"We are very excited. We know we have a big challenge in front of us. We know what type of team they are and we know all of the things that come with Clemson," Smith acknowledged. "We just feel like as long as we are playing Virginia football, and really stick to our plan, it's going to be a very good challenge. We know what type of team we are going up against and we will be well prepared when we play against them Saturday."

Charlottesville to Charlotte, Smith is greedy and grateful alike. He undoubtedly wants more, see a conference championship and a bowl win, but is appreciative for the moment and the memories already made. Though Smith is, by some measures, just getting started, each move made has been deliberate and determined. Beyond just a big game, what is next is what Smith has worked tirelessly for.  

Thanksgiving, for Smith, didn't end last week

"It's been a great journey, really just sticking to the process. Just waiting my time. Things can get a little frustrating at times and you can start having a little doubt. I just stuck to the process and really trusted my coaches and trusted my ability, my work ethic and things like that," Smith added. "And look at me now, I'm the starting cornerback for Virginia right now, I'm just blessed for that."

Hall in his head and Slay, Coleman and Walker in his heart, Smith plays on. This is a story shared by many. It's a story of perseverance and pride.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports