By Gabriel Stovall
LOVEJOY, Ga. — Derrick Smith knew it was going to be a good day for one of his best receivers when he saw how Malik Route was moving both the opposing defensive back, and the crowd.
It happened during the MVP Camp hosted by Lovejoy three weeks ago. It was an opportunity for Route to do what he’s gotten quite accustomed to doing in his high school football career.
Prove people wrong.
“He was playing the slot this time. He didn’t go wide,” said Lovejoy receivers coach Derrick Smith as he described the play sequence. “It was kind of a curl route with some whip action. He curled up 10 yards, the opposing DB came down and Malik whipped to the sideline and left the guy in the dust.”
To say that Route’s abuse of his opponent on that particular play turned multiple heads at Lovejoy’s Twelve Oaks Stadium is not an overstatement.
“When that happened the McEachern wide receiver coach turned to me and was like, ‘Wow,’” Smith said. The crowd was oohing and ahhing, and all I could say was, ‘Hmmm. That’s nasty.’”
Route could’ve taken the time to throw some shade back on the defender. Route said the corner was talking major trash, so nobody would’ve blamed the Lovejoy rising senior if he would’ve responded in-kind.
“He was a bigger guy, like 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, and he kept talking before the play about how I was gonna be easy to cover,” Route said. “So I had to show him. When he came up to jam me, I just used my quickness and explosiveness, and kinda made him look bad.”
It wasn’t the first time Route left a defender whiffing at him. The smallish wideout tips the scales at a meager 155 pounds, while standing about 5-foot-6. It makes him an easy target for underestimation, despite his solid junior season numbers.
Route registered 55 catches for 645 receiving yards and three touchdown catches for Lovejoy in 2015. In addition, he tallied 730 combined punt and kickoff return yards with four punts and two kickoffs returned for scores.
It was enough to garner first-team all region honors, an offer from Mercer, and a bunch of interest from Division I schools such as Clemson, Kentucky, West Virginia, Louisville, TCU and Purdue. He’s even visited schools and gone to camps at places like Alabama. But everywhere he’s gone, he’s heard a similar refrain.
“Oh, they all say the same thing,” Route said. “‘Continue to work hard. If you were taller, we’d offer you on the spot. We’re going to continue to watch,’ and things like that. They’ll say if I have a breakout senior season then they’ll offer me.”
And that’s exactly what Smith said he’s preparing his protege to do.
Smith knows all about what it takes to make a splash on the college scene as a football player. Before coming back to Lovejoy to coach, Smith played at West Virginia during the Rich Rodriguez coaching era. He also found some success in the Canadian Football League as a receiver with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
He’s known Route since Route was in the fifth grade, and he’s encouraging his understudy to spend more time focusing on what he can control instead of what he can’t.
“It’s frustrating for him, because a lot of the coaches and recruiters, they kind of black ball him and size him up,” Smith said. “They see the film but then they come to me like, ‘Coach, he’s so small.’ But Malik understands that’s what he’s got to go through, so we don’t even talk about it. We talk about what we have to do to get better and more explosive.
“He knows we can’t just have 55 catches for 675 yards. Because of his size, he’s gotta get 75 catches for 1,000 yards and like 13 touchdowns to make people say, ‘Who is this boy down at Lovejoy? We can’t keep looking at his size.’ We’ve gotta get his highlight tape popping.’”
Smith thinks the last three weeks have been huge in helping Route shape into a diminutive dynamo at wideout. There was the MVP camp, and several others after it where Route was facing some of Georgia’s best defenders and competing along side some of the state’s top pass catchers. And he did more than hold his own.
“He was definitely on the money at the MVP camp,” Smith said. “He didn’t drop but one ball out of over 30 all day, and that was his first one. He ran efficient routes. He was a crowd pleaser and led all groups he was in as an individual. There was a reason why he was named that camp’s MVP.”
For Route, he’s not as excited about the uptick in attention as he is relieved.
“I feel that it’s like I’ve been working so hard, so it’s about time that the offers and interest are coming,” he said. “I’ve been small all my life. I can’t do nothing about my size. But I can work hard and do it 10 times harder than everybody else to set myself apart.”
It may not just be Route who’s poised for a breakout season in 2016. Virtually the entire cast of 2015 headliners will return — eight starters on both sides of the ball — including a healthy Hajj-Malik Williams at quarterback, rising junior tailback Zion Custis and three-star WR/DB Marquese Taylor.
Williams nursed a broken hand last year which caused for some inconsistency at the signal caller spot. That’s something Smith takes into account whenever he wants people to understand Route’s potential.
“With Hajj being injured, we weren’t as consistent at quarterback as we wanted to be,” Smith said. “And we were young up front at o-line. People don’t understand that we lost 34 seniors last year. And with all of that, for Malik to still have the outstanding year he had, I just say the sky’s the limit for him.”
Route believes that about himself, too. That’s why, although he’s said he’s “super excited” about his offer from Mercer, you can tell he still has much higher football aspirations.
“He loves Mercer, but don’t get me twisted. Malik has always been a big vision guy,” Smith said. “He tells me all the time, ‘I want to be the guy that plays on ABC and ESPN one day.”
Route said he looks to guys his size who are already playing on that stage to gain inspiration.
“I like Jakeem Grant,” Route said. “No. 11 from Texas Tech. He’s listed at like 5-foot-6, 160 pounds, so he’s my size and everything. I heard him say it best. He said he tries to be the most explosive player on the field at all times.”
He also mentions players like Devin Hester most recently of the Atlanta Falcons. And on a local tip, Route said he’s found Jonesboro defensive tackle Kali James — considered by many to be undersized, despite his ability — as proof that size shouldn’t always matter.
Route is on the Lovejoy track team for the first time in his high school career for that reason. He’s spending more time in the weight room working on his leg strength and trying to extend his top-end speed.
The busyness helps keep him from thinking too hard about things that are beyond his control, which helps sharpen his focus on improving the qualities he feels will make him a recruiting steal for whomever takes a chance on him.
“I’m hard working,” Route said. “I’ll do anything to help the team. Anything they ask me to do I’ll do it. I make others around me better, and try to bring everybody around up. I bring a good attitude and mindset toward everything. I know what I can do if given the opportunity.”
Route showcased skills at the MVP Camp and The Opening Camp that made him popular with the onlookers. Here’s what some of them had to say via Twitter:
Malik Route, WR from Lovejoy, was always open. Very quick, good route runner and he was as quick as he was fast down the field
— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) March 23, 2016
— The Play Book (@PlayBookAthlete) March 14, 2016
— Recruit Georgia (@RecruitGeorgia) March 13, 2016
Check out Malik Route’s 2015 Highlight Reel: