KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee offensive tackle Trey Smith knows he may need time to get back to peak form after a health scare forced him to miss spring practice.
He's just grateful to be back on the field after blood clots in his lungs put his football future at risk.
"I was blessed and fortunate to be out there, period," he said Monday.
Smith wasn't cleared for contact until late August and had only eight more practices from that point until the start of the season. Smith acknowledges he's still "getting a lot of rust out" as he gets ready for Saturday's home opener with East Tennessee State (1-0).
The Volunteers (0-1) are counting on Smith to anchor an offensive line that took some lumps in a season-opening 40-14 loss to No. 17 West Virginia. That's quite a bit of pressure to put on a 19 year-old.
Then again, Smith's already dealt with much greater responsibility.
Smith was 15 when his mother, Dorsetta Smith, died of heart complications, a tragedy that forced him to grow up in a hurry. He arrived on Tennessee's campus as the nation's No. 1 overall prospect in his class , according to ESPN.
"I can remember trying to recruit Trey when I was at Florida State and thinking that he was probably in the top five or six offensive linemen I'd ever tried to recruit — and there have been some pretty good ones," said East Tennessee State coach Randy Sanders, a former Florida State, Tennessee and Kentucky offensive coordinator with 29 years of Football Bowl Subdivision coaching experience.
Smith started all 12 games as a true freshman last season and was a second-team all-SEC selection, making him the only Vol to earn all-SEC honors. But he suspected something might be wrong earlier this year when he struggled to get through offseason workouts.
He was diagnosed with the blood clots in February.
"When they first identified it, I was just relieved, to be honest, just knowing something was wrong and it wasn't just a mental issue or something," Smith said.
At that point, Smith says he wasn't worrying too much about football.
"Football can be a second thought when it comes down to living or not," he said.
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt announced in March that Smith would miss spring practice because of to "personal health issues." His condition wasn't made public until July, when he gave an interview to ESPN after getting cleared to play.
The latest chapter in Smith's comeback came last week when he opened the season as Tennessee's starting left tackle.
"It was relieving ultimately just finally doing what I love to do, not worrying about external issues, just getting out there and playing ball," he said.
Although he briefly left the West Virginia game with an ankle injury, Smith returned and said Monday he feels fine.
"I think Trey played hard," Pruitt said. "He obviously made some mistakes and probably things that he'll improve on just based off taking more reps, but he did compete hard. That's a positive. I think he's only going to get better each week."
Smith and the rest of the offensive line have a couple more weeks to improve before opening SEC competition Sept. 22 against Florida.
Tennessee's a prohibitive favorite Saturday against an ETSU team that hasn't had a winning season since relaunching its football program in 2015. ETSU had stopped playing football after 2003 for financial reasons.
Sanders has bold plans for his postgame celebration if the Bucs pull the upset.
"I'm going to have that goalpost thrown over my shoulder coming back up the interstate," Sanders said. "I wouldn't be riding no bus. I'd be walking, probably naked, with the thing on my shoulder."
NOTES: Tennessee freshman linebacker JJ Peterson is on campus after getting cleared by the NCAA. Peterson was the highest-rated prospect in Tennessee's 2018 recruiting class , but Pruitt cautioned against putting "unrealistic expectations on him" based on his late start.
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