SPENCER — Late in the fourth quarter against Star Spencer on Thursday night, John Marshall senior Devion Smith asked one of the Bears' assistant coaches if he could return an upcoming punt.
The suggestion made it to the ears of first-year head coach Rashaun Woods, who promptly inserted his most dynamic playmaker into the role with the Bears trailing by one point at Star Spencer's Twidwell Stadium.
Smith hadn't returned a punt all season, but with 1:01 left to play, he pulled in the Star Spencer kick on one bounce at his own 33-yard line, slipped to his right and blazed down the sideline — with the help of a few key blocks — for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in a 26-20 victory.
“We were down and we needed a big play,” Smith said. “I asked if I could do it, and they put me back there.”
Smith, who had eight touchdown receptions in the Bears' first three games, was limited in the pass game by constant double coverage. But he found his opportunity to impact the game and gave John Marshall an important victory in the District 3A-3 opener.
“He's just dynamic, our most physically gifted kid. We've put him in situations this year to try and take advantage of that,” Woods said. “He's one of the best talents I've ever come across. I know a lot of the big-time colleges maybe have a lot of their guys picked, but he's as good as I've ever seen at this level.”
Smith wasn't the only one making big plays for the Bears (3-1 overall, 1-0 district). Keshawn Shells got them on the board in the second quarter with a 53-yard touchdown run, and sophomore quarterback Lenard Levingston had touchdown passes to Kaelon Love and Dez Jackson.
But even after Jackson's 29-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter, Star Spencer still led 20-19. The Bobcats (1-3, 0-1) ran as much time off the clock as possible before punting to Smith with just over a minute remaining.
Star's Jerome Smith rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Johnny Thornton rushed for a TD and returned an interception for a score. He also threw to Marshawn Reid II, who made a juggling catch on a two-point conversion that looked to be the deciding points until Smith's big return.
Though it's only Week 4, Thursday's victory could eventually play a big part in the district playoff race for the Bears, who were 0-10 a year ago. And there was some pride on the line, too.
“Last year, we lost to those guys, a blowout on our homecoming,” Smith said. “This year, to come out and win it and get to 3-1, it means a lot. It's just about team, dedication, persevering the whole time we were down. We just kept our heads up and kept playing.”