The best separators in the NFL all have one thing in common — they have an elite release. While crisp routes are vital, winning off the line of scrimmage or at the second level with those releases is even more critical to creating actual separation as a wide receiver. Davante Adams, Amari Cooper, Keenan Allen, and more are some of the elite route runners are have similar-caliber releases. When looking at the best releases in the NCAA, few can beat out star Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith.
Why are releases so essential, and why does it make Smith such a problem for opposing cornerbacks?
Why Devonta Smith’s release off the line makes him a problem
To understand what makes the release so vital, you have to understand just how essential leverage is the game of cat and mouse between a defensive back and wide receiver. Mostly, the battles that go on between the receivers and cornerbacks are a battle for leverage. Specific schemes have different rules and ways to play certain situations depending on the coverage, but at the base of every coverage and play, leverage is king.
Releases, most importantly, help receivers and quarterbacks establish throwing windows. When coaches say that “Football is a game of inches,” it directly applies to things like this. A great release does not always create a ridiculous amount of separation, but an open window.
Smith is very much the same way, but for him specifically, he has a signature release. Any good receiver with those releases will tell you that their whole body is a machine, and it goes together. From eyes to hips, to feet, and more, everything impacts how a defensive back reads and reacts to your release. That is why it is so important to be crisp, physical against press coverage, and sudden.
Smith’s release off the line proves to be excellent
To get a lot of context into Smith’s great releases, let’s take a look at a few plays against elite LSU cornerback Derek Stingley. For the most part, Smith cooked the young stud in Stingley all night because of his great releases.
The release is everything on a play like this. It is a hesitation release with a quick one-two jab to get Stingley to work inside and give Smith the path to accelerate outside. What Smith is that he uses his hesitation release to close the gap with Stingley, and showcases his suddenness and violence on this route.
The hard inside jabs are trying to get Stingley to bite to the inside. With a violent upper body to sell the inside shake, Stingley leans slightly inside and stops his feet. Smith’s speed is enough to allow him to accelerate, create separation, and burn Stingley deep for the touchdown. It was all created by his release.
Smith’s hesitation release sets him up for success across all areas of his game. Most importantly, note that this is the same release he used on Stingley to net that touchdown earlier in the game. However, the difference here is that Stingley is working outside shade and leverage here. Seeing that release makes him think Smith is going to explode vertically, and he leans outside and stops his feet. Once again, Smith’s violent upper body sells the outside stem and gets Stingley to lean, thus creating separation on the slant.
Smith’s stutter release is the other release that he primarily uses to get defensive backs reeling. He does not get the target here, but once again watch him eat up space on Stingley and get right into his personal space. Smith’s violent upper body and head shake get Stingley, who has outside leverage, to bite and get beat badly to the inside. I also have to point out Smith’s explosiveness and suddenness in his feet. It is quick, efficient footwork with that great upper body deception that allows him to create this separation.
How Devonta Smith’s release helps his entire game
While I have highlighted the releases here, Smith has other traits that make him the player he is overall. The physical characteristics come into having these great releases. More specifically, the quick feet, fluidity, explosiveness, and speed that Smith all possess to threaten all three levels of the field.
However, these releases allow him to open up windows to use his excellent body control and ball skills to make those acrobatic catches along the sideline. Even more so, they will enable him to create separation so he can work his magic after the catch and get critical yards after the catch.
However, behind every good vertical receiver is an excellent release. Smith is no different in that, and his proficiency in this area bodes well for how he can translate to the NFL as a vertical threat as well.