Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Arkansas volunteer coach Smart wears many hats
Arkansas volunteer coach Taylor Smart runs toward the first base coach's box during a game against Northwestern State on Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello and assistant Josh Elander aren’t the only ones coaching on a new side of the Arkansas-Tennessee series this weekend.
Arkansas volunteer coach Taylor Smart played two seasons at Tennessee and was the Volunteers’ student assistant coach in 2017.
“It’s definitely a little weird playing against the team that I was always rooting for and play for, and bled orange for quite a while, and still do a little bit,” Smart said.
“I know a couple of those guys over there, the players that are juniors and seniors now….I’m always in the orange and rooting for them, but I’m rooting against them this weekend and want to put it on them. That’s kind of who I am: it doesn’t matter who’s across the diamond, I want to beat them good.”
Smart was an everyday starter at third base as a senior at Tennessee in 2014. He also played for the Vols a year earlier after transferring from a Nevada junior college.
He finished his career with a .280 batting average, 24 extra-base hits and 48 RBI.
Smart, 27, is in his first season as the volunteer coach at Arkansas. He replaced Craig Parry, who was hired as an assistant coach at Abilene Christian last summer. Parry replaced Elander, who left Arkansas after one season to join Vitello at Tennessee in 2017.
Smart insists the Razorbacks' track record of putting volunteers on the fast track to Division I jobs wasn’t his focus when he asked some of his coaching mentors to reach out to Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn on his behalf last summer.
Smart had been in a good situation as a graduate assistant coach and camp coordinator at Arizona (and he also coached summer ball in California), but he wanted to get back to the Southeastern Conference.
“Being kind of a baseball rat, I just knew that Arkansas was a top program every single year,” Smart said. “I knew Coach Van Horn was a good coach. I didn’t know him personally, but heard good things about him. Being back in the SEC is what I want because I firmly believe it is the best conference in the country and I wanted to be back in this conference having been out of it for a year.”
With a roster that was built less on power than the one in 2018, Van Horn liked Smart’s track record as a good base runner and hired him to help the team improve in that area.
“Everyone I talked to about him said he worked hard and had a lot of energy, and he’s brought that here,” Van Horn said. “I really wanted him to head up base running because that was going to be a big emphasis for us; I didn’t feel like we ran the bases very good last year. We were going to need to be able to go first to third, dirt-ball reads, steal a few more bases.
“Taylor has done a great job. Players respect him. You have to earn it and he’s earned it, and I probably couldn’t have asked for more from him.”
Smart’s father, Dave, is a former junior college coach in Seattle and has long emphasized base running to his teams. It was a value Taylor Smart learned at an early age.
“I always took pride as a player in being the best base runner,” Smart said. “I could run a little bit, but I wasn’t a burner….I knew what it took to be a pretty good base runner, but I didn’t really have a plan down to teach it, so in the summer I created a PowerPoint for myself of instructional-type things and my game plan of how I was going to teach it to players.
“We worked with the base runners a lot starting in the fall and made it important, and I think it has really helped our team whether it has been stealing bases or getting the right reads on base hits. Your base-running turns can be a make or break, winning a ballgame or losing a ballgame.
“We made it really important in the fall so that the players understood that when it comes springtime, those reads you’re getting in October are important and are going to translate to the game in the spring. The players don’t take it for granted or push it to the side. They work hard on it in batting practice every day.”
Arkansas has been a good base-running team this year. The Razorbacks were among the nation’s top base-stealing teams in nonconference play, but have slowed down since the beginning of the SEC season. Arkansas has successfully swiped 56 of 68 bags this year.
“We’ve shut it down a little bit lately, but everybody does in this league,” Van Horn said. “Catchers are better, pitchers are quicker to the plate and you don’t want to run yourself out of innings.”
Van Horn has long used the volunteer coach position to work with catchers and to coach first base. Smart, a former infielder, had never played behind the plate, but studied the catcher position intently last year at Arizona.
“Last year at Arizona, our volunteer worked with catchers, so I kind of observed him and worked with him a lot, just kind of watching what he does,” Smart said. “I knew going forward that could be an additional thing on my resume that could help me land a job.
"It’s just like anything else in this game, there is so much to learn. I just kept learning. I talked to people who were catchers - players and coaches - and watched a lot of video on catchers and what they do.”
Van Horn said he doesn’t expect Smart to teach technique so much as keep the catchers organized. Casey Opitz and Zack Plunkett are veteran catchers who know how to play the position.
“He works them and I wanted him to work them,” Van Horn said. “He’s done a great job with that.”
One of Smart’s biggest influences on this year’s team was his keen eye during an early-season slump for outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who struggled swinging through pitches high in the strike zone and was batting .214 through six games.
Smart noticed Kjerstad’s leg kick wasn’t as high as it typically was, and wondered whether that might be leading to his high strikeout rate.
“Not having coached him for a full year, but having watched him on TV and on film, when he was really rolling he would get his rhythm started early and he would get his leg kicked up high,” Smart said. “That’s kind of his timing mechanism; he has a higher leg kick, but he does it early and that’s where he sees the baseball.
“I just kind of focused on that for a game or two and finally said something to him. He kind of took off from there. I’m not taking any of that credit because at the end of the day he has to do that in a game. It doesn’t matter what I say or don’t say; he’s got to put it to use.
“He ran with it and he’s made the adjustment, and he hasn’t looked back.”
Kjerstad is batting .324 and has a team-high 10 home runs through 42 games. He had a 14-game hit streak end in the first game of the Tennessee series.
“When I came in I didn’t want to be that guy who said a million things out of the gate, trying to adjust this or adjust that,” Smart said. “You have to learn the hitters and learn their mental capability and want their physical swing looks like when it’s good or bad. I studied their swing in scrimmages and by watching film. I let myself really know their swing before I start giving tips on what I see. It was a lot of observing first.
“I think the guys respected that. I could put myself in their shoes of a new coach coming in and changing things right away. You don’t want that; you haven’t even seen me play. I wanted to wait a little bit before I gave my two cents, I guess you could say.
“I think they built trust with me to where when you do give advice, they absorb it and do want to put it to use.”
Smart, who is not married, spends most of his time in and around the ballpark. The volunteer position is unpaid and a proposal to add a third paid assistant coach to baseball staffs was voted down by the NCAA Division I Council last week, so he makes a living by teaching private lessons at night and by helping run the Razorbacks’ offseason camps.
For instance, Smart on Monday spent seven hours watching film and helping compile a scouting report on the Razorbacks’ midweek opponent, Northwestern State. Then he spent four hours that night teaching lessons to young players.
“It’s long days at the field, but I try to keep things in perspective,” Smart said. “There are a lot of people who would want my job, so there’s no reason to complain. I get to coach baseball for a living. There are a lot of worse things.”
That’s a reflection of the attitude-leads-to-results mindset that Van Horn instills into his team.
“You get to choose what kind of mindset you want to come to the field with and want to come to the game with,” Smart said.
“I like the way (Van Horn) communicates with his players. He’s a genuine person first, and then a coach. He’s never able to look down on anybody - a player or a coach - and I think everybody respects that. I’ve kind of put that in my back pocket as something I want to be as I continue to go up the coaching ladder. We’re all in this together. Nobody is above anybody.”
Smart said he also has learned a lot watching Van Horn in meetings and how he conducts his practices.
“It’s OK to give some guys some time off and let them recharge the batteries,” Smart said. “It’s going to make them want to come back here. You don’t want to be in a place or an atmosphere where it’s a drag to come to the field. You want it to be exciting and energetic.
“I didn’t really take this position or want this position so I could elevate to get somewhere else. In my opinion, if you come to Arkansas in any role, you’re kind of at the top as it is. So I’m not in any rush to leave here, to be honest with you. I took the job because it was kind of the job to get, whether that’s a volunteer or a full-time coach.
“I love what I do here and I’ve still got a lot to learn. Before I go anywhere, I want to keep learning from Coach.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.