Jaxon Smolik wondered if it were all over.
Smolik’s junior year at Dowling Catholic High School was supposed to be his first full season starting for the 10-time Iowa state champions.
It was supposed to be his first big chance to showcase himself for major college football programs.
It was supposed to be…
Then, Smolik broke his collarbone on opening night and didn’t know if he’d ever play football again.
The thought dominated Smolik’s mind and immediately entered Jaxon’s father, Mark Smolik’s head when the injury occurred. Smolik, a former linebacker at South Dakota State, had his college career cut short after one season due to issues stemming from a dislocated shoulder he suffered, ironically, during his junior year of high school.
Could it be a horrible case of deja vu?
To make things worse, Dowling lost the game on a Hail Mary.
As Jaxon Smolik watched Southeast Polk celebrate beating Dowling, he wondered what was going to happen.
“I just remember sitting there saying, ‘man, this can really change my career path,” Smolik said. “I have to make a choice if I want to keep playing.”
A BIG RETURN
Smolik kept playing.
His first game post-injury came in front of thousands against rival West Des Moines Valley.
Smolik struggled in the first half but made up for it, going 8-for-8 for 188 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. In the final two minutes, he led Dowling on a 47-second game-winning drive.
Dowling Catholic stuns Valley 31-27 😳
Jaxon Smolik is back ladies and gents. pic.twitter.com/L69RsSVsnC
— IASportz (@IAsportz) October 16, 2021
“In the second half,” Dowling coach Tom Wilson told Nittany Sports Now, “I thought he was pretty special.”
Weeks after his football career went into jeopardy, Smolik cashed in on a big chance to let people know the quarterback he was.
“I really wanted to show everybody in the state what I’ve got,” Smolik told the Des Moines Register after the game. “It was a great game to come back to. It was on TV. This was awesome.”
Dowling finished the season 8-4, bowing out in the state quarterfinal round in a rematch with eventual-state champion Southeast Polk. Smolik played well in a limited sample, finishing the year with nine touchdown passes, just two interceptions, 959 yards passing and a 65.5% completion percentage in five games.
But it didn’t make him a big-time recruit.
Smolik’s mother and brother went to Iowa State and he grew up rooting for the Cyclones.
Iowa State never offered him.
Smolik watched plenty of Iowa football growing up.
Iowa didn’t offer.
One of Smolik’s first Division I offers came from Tulane, and he committed there June 23. Smolik loved Tulane and the school would have given him a chance to be a Division I quarterback.
But he and his coaches couldn’t help but wonder if and when Power Five schools would call.
“I really felt like people just needed to see him,” Wilson said.
Jaxon Smolik heard the news while he and his dad were hitting golf balls outside their house.
Mark Smolik had gone out on his ATV to retrieve the drives. When he returned, he saw his son with a “ghostly white” face.
“You’ll never guess who I just got a call from,” Jaxon told his father.
It was Elite 11 President and General Manager Brian Stumpf.
The Elite 11 is a premier high school quarterback showcase, and Tennessee QB commit Nico Iamaleava had backed out at the last minute.
Because of that, Smolik got the invite.
— Jaxon Smolik (@JaxonSmolik) June 28, 2022
“Jaxon had 12 hours, and that night he didn’t sleep at all,” Mark Smolik said.
For Mark Smolik, Jaxon didn’t have a lot of pressure compared to the other competitors.
“He knew he had nothing to lose by going there,” Mark Smolik said. “Because he’s an unknown.”
NOT ANONYMOUS ANYMORE
“It was really that first day when I knew I killed it.”
Competing against five-star recruits, Smolik felt comfortable right away and when the three days ended, the camp named him one of its Elite 11.
𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟐 𝐄𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐞 𝟏𝟏 🏆
Determined by #Elite11 coaching staff – 50% junior season film & performance, 50% event evaluation and traits.
Listed alphabetically. pic.twitter.com/5QRnCbpXxv
— Elite11 (@Elite11) July 1, 2022
Every other player on the list is a five-star or four-star recruit according to 247Sports’ composite ratings. Smolix didn’t even have a composite rating before the camp, but he made his skills known over those three days.
“He had one of the quickest releases at the camp,” wrote 247 after, “threw one of the tightest balls and was one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the event as well. He’s a natural thrower with a smooth, easy delivery and the ball jumps out of his hand.”
The Elite 11 list had two determining factors; 50 percent junior season film, 50 percent camp performance. Smolik didn’t have a lot of film from his junior season, which is extra telling of how he performed at the camp.
Wilson’s words, “once they see him, they like him,” were prophetic.
“After that camp,” Smolik said, “a lot of people were coming up to me and saying, ‘man, you’re going to go big places.'”
Smolik knew many more offers were coming.
But one from Penn State didn’t seem likely.
ANOTHER OPEN DOOR
Penn State already had a 2023 quarterback. In April, Marcus Stokes committed and shut down his recruitment hours later.
That was that, it appeared.
But then, Stokes de-committed July 7 and flipped to Florida.
“And that’s kind of when that contact started,” Smolik said.
Within the next two weeks, Penn State quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich sent him a direct message, and Smolik called him back. From there, Smolik communicated with Yurcich, offensive analyst and former University of Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien and offensive recruiting coordinator Chris “Slim” Mahon.
Three weeks after Stokes de-committed, Smolik came to Happy Valley for Penn State’s Elite Showcase V. He performed well and, at the end of the camp, Penn State offered him. He decommitted from Tulane Aug. 11 and committed to Penn State the next day.
WE ARE PENN STATE 🦁 After further conversations with my family I have decided to commit to Penn State University! Thank you to God, my family and coaches @coachjfranklin @Coach_Yurcich #WeAre #107kStrong #PSUnrivaled pic.twitter.com/PE6qO1Nj6c
— Jaxon Smolik (@JaxonSmolik) August 12, 2022
Multiple things influenced Smolik’s decision, such as Penn State’s campus and getting to know 2023 commits such as four-star tight end Andrew Rappleyea.
Yurcich played as big or bigger or a part than anything else.
Three-star 2023 West De Moines (Iowa) Dowling Catholic QB and Tulane commit Jaxon Smolik (@JaxonSmolik) throwing to four-star TE commit Andrew Rappleyea (@andrewrappleyea) at Penn State’s Elite Showcase V camp. pic.twitter.com/vK25oFuRaP
— Tyler Calvaruso (@tyler_calvaruso) July 29, 2022
“Being able to get to know him as a person really influenced me,” Smolik said. “His background is obviously really impressive, and it’s good to have a coach like that that has experience with top guys.”
He also likes Yurcich’s scheme— which uses a lot of RPOs— and says he can see himself operating it.
“I feel like I fit in really well with their offense,” Smolik said. “I talked to (Yurcich) a lot, and it’s kind of like the same kind of reads we run, just not the exact same plays. I feel like I fit in really well when I get there and (will) be able to run the offense and get the practice reps.”
Yurcich has coached star college quarterbacks such as Justin Fields and Mason Rudolph, and Smolik hopes to work well enough with Yurcich to get to that level.
“It’s truly helpful to know that he’s coached some of the best,” Smolik said, “and I can become one of the best, too.”
‘THROW IT ON A DIME’
“Dude, this is how you’re going to play football.”
Mark Smolik remembers saying something along those lines to his son about Trace McSorley when he was Penn State’s quarterback.
“Just such a dynamic player,” Mark Smolik remembers. “Just fun to watch.”
McSorley is the main reason why Penn State was the closest thing to a “dream school” for Jaxon Smolik.
— Trace McSorley (@McSorley_IX) August 13, 2022
He’d rather be the first Smolik than the next McSorley— although he might like to be known for his ability to “throw it on a dime,” as the McSorley-inspired rap song says— there are similarities in both recruitment journeys. Both were three-star recruits, and both changed plans. McSorley flipped from Vanderbilt after James Franklin left Vandy to become Penn State’s head coach.
Smolik hopes he’ll post similar production to McSorley.
Time will tell, but for now, Smolik feels blessed about the present and is excited about the future.
“I feel like I’ll be a really good fit at Penn State,” he said.