Two years ago, the thought of playing college football couldn’t have been further from Arkell Smith’s mind.

But after deciding to give football a shot as a junior, Smith turned in two spectacular seasons as a wide receiver for Carthage, and on Feb. 7 he signed a letter of intent to play in college at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

Two years ago, the thought of playing college football couldn’t have been further from Arkell Smith’s mind.

But after deciding to give football a shot as a junior, Smith turned in two spectacular seasons as a wide receiver for Carthage, and on Feb. 7 he signed a letter of intent to play in college at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

“It was a great decision,” Smith said of the decision to play football. “Probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”

Last fall, while helping the Tigers to a 9-4 record and an appearance in the Class 5 semifinals, Smith led the team with 65 receptions for 1,201 yards and nine touchdowns. He recorded 452 yards on just 18 catches during one three-game stretch, and totaled 195 yards in a semifinal loss at Staley.

Smith made 47 receptions for 881 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games as a junior. He averaged better than 18 yards per catch for his career.

“He’s very athletic, number one,” head coach Jon Guidie said. “He’s hard to cover. He’s a mismatch for a lot of defensive backs with his size and athleticism. He can run, he can jump, he can go get the football. I think that was the biggest thing.”

The grandson of Anita and David Pillar and Doug Mitts, Smith almost never had a football career. Guidie and his coaching staff tried for two years to convince him to play. Smith finally made a deal with a friend, agreeing to play football with him if the friend did track with Smith.

“He was a basketball and track guy,” Guidie said, “but you could just see his athleticism. I think coach Ray had him in PE class his sophomore year and they were doing a unit on football and he came back and reported to me that, ‘You’ve got to get this guy.’ I think coach Ray really helped in terms of us recruiting him and making that decision.”

When Smith showed up for the first day of practice his junior season, Guidie knew right away the team had something special.

“Probably that first practice he came out,” he said. “He was so raw and he did everything perfect because he didn’t know anything else. His effort was there, his execution was there. He did exactly what we told him to do and we felt like we had something with him.”

Smith caught four passes for 30 yards in his first game. He had four receptions for 67 yards in week two, and six catches for 78 yards in a week three game against Branson.

Smith said it was around that week three game when he started thinking of playing in college.

“I had a pretty good game and then I fell in love with it,” he said. “Fell in love with the atmosphere, being on the field with other players. It felt like a big family and I loved it.”

Smith will play for coach Jim Svoboda at Central. The Mules went 9-3 last fall and will graduate leading receiver Jaylen Zachery (53-896). Junior quarterback Brook Bolles threw for 3,766 yards and 23 touchdowns.

“Definitely a big thing was their offense is great for receivers like me,” Smith said. “They have really good quarterbacks and I love their coaching staff. Their players’ connection, it just feels like a big family up there.”

Pittsburg State, Missouri Southern and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M also recruited Smith.

“It was a big decision between Central and NEO,” he said. “Two different paths but I thought Central would be a good choice.”

“I think it’s a great fit for him at UCM,” Guidie said. “I think he’s going to have an immediate impact when he goes up there. I’m really proud of him.”

Smith was named the 2017 All-Area Offensive Player of the Year. He was a first team All-Area, All-Conference and All-District pick as a junior and senior.

A three-sport athlete, Smith is a two-time All-State triple jumper, and also earned All-State status in the 4x400 relay and 4x200 relay.