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DECATUR — For those that are close to Millikin wide receiver Jordan Smith, they don't call him "Jordan." 

To most everyone on the Big Blue football team, he is "Gene," a nickname that dates back to his days as a Shelbyville Ram receiver. 

Central A&M coach Brent Weakly, then Shelbyville's offensive coordinator, took to calling Smith "Gene" based on one of his favorite NFL players.

"It all started in high school. I was a sophomore and it was coach Weakly who started calling me that out of the blue. I liked the (New York Jets quarterback) Geno Smith at the time and it kind of just stuck," Smith said. 

No matter what you call him, opposing teams will have Smith zeroed in on as the biggest weapon in a Big Blue offense that is now without record-breaking quarterback and Casey-Westfield graduate Nicco Stepina, who graduated.

The Nicco-to-Jordan connection made Millikin a dangerous team for anyone in the CCIW and Smith set school records in receiving yards (1,044) and touchdowns (17) in a single season in 2018. 

"Nicco and I had such a great relationship and we had good chemistry on and off the field. He knew where I was going to be and I knew where he needed me to be. It clicked every time," Smith said. "I miss him for sure as a friend but we have other quarterbacks here that can do the same and step up and be as productive as him."

Coach Dan Gritti is handing the keys of his offense to junior Cal Pohrte, who came in in relief for an injured Stepina against Carthage College in Week 6 and started against Elmhurst College the following week. The experience of those two victories is critical for Gritti. 

"I think that start (against Elmhurst) is huge but the bigger one is the game against Carthage and playing against a team we hadn’t beaten in a while," Gritti said. "That second half, coming in relief and leading up to the victory, that’s where you got to see the best of Cal and what we plan to build from."

Smith's continued development is critical in Pohrte's success under center and Gritti likes what he sees from Smith this summer. 

"Jordan has taken a huge step. When he came here, he was already an all-world player at Shelbyville and was raw and it was really about his athleticism," Gritti said. "Then he got better technique wise but now really where he has had the biggest strides is mentally. He has a much bigger command of everything that we are doing and a much better understanding so we are able to put more on his plate offensively."

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Pohrte can't wait for the opportunity to connect with Smith when the season starts Friday, Sept. 6 against Hope College at Frank M. Lindsay Field on Millikin's campus. 

"Jordan is Jordan. I’ve never played with a receiver like him before and we have thrown in practice the past few years and it’s impressive to see what he can do on the field," Pohrte said. "There’s not a weapon like him unless you would like to talk about Colton Lockwood, who is our new addition to the team. He’s something special, too."

Lockwood, a 2016 Eisenhower graduate and the Panthers' all-time receiving yardage leader, will be lining up opposite of Smith and comes to Millikin after a season away from football following a season at McKendree University. 

"I’m very confident in that our starting receiving core — Colton Lockwood, Patrick Cooper, Leigh Nutall and Gene — are the best in the CCIW," Pohrte said. "They are so reliable and Gene can get open in spots where I don’t think he is, but he is."

Smith should continue to rewrite records books this season as his 2,300 career yards are just 284 yards away from becoming Millikin's all-time leading receiver. To do so, he will have to pass Big Blue greats Jeff Query (2,548 yards) and Jerome Jackson (2,584 yards). 

But one name comes up when asking Smith if he is the best receiver Millikin has had. 

"That’s Jeff Query. Oh yeah, he played in the NFL so that’s a no-brainer," Smith said. "The records are definitely a big honor and some of those guys I've passed are big names. I try not to think about (the records) too much but they are pretty cool. I really didn’t have any records before all of this."

If Smith can continue his upwards trajectory, Gritti is certain NFL teams will continue to express interest in the 6-4, 195-pound standout.  

"He’s like the prototypical NFL receiver,"Gritti said. "He’s put on 10 pounds this year so he’s getting there. I’m sure the way they are looking at it that if he has another great year and spends that offseason putting on more strength, he is prime at least for a look from the NFL."

That dream is what keeps Smith working hard and focused on improvement. 

"It is a great opportunity. It is something that keeps my hopes up and something I would love to do," he said. "We will see. We have a season ahead and that’s what I need to focus on right now."

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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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