Three degrees of Zach Smith

Of the many fascinating stories on the Cal football team, Zach Smith is interesting to the point that you can cover lots of ground and barely talk football. Interested in a guy who played D-I football and graduated in three years? Someone who can provide perspective about one of college sports' most controversial stories? And finally, need someone to play fullback this Saturday? Here's your guy.

"My role with the team's stayed the same," said the 5-11, 215 pound Smith, who will play role as regular starting fullback Will Taufoou has been slowed by injuries.  "We prepare every week, and maybe the playing time during the game might change, but what we do during the week doesn't change. I might be getting more reps, but running backs coach (Ron) Gould is good about giving reps to all of the backs throughout practice. He's always telling us that we're only as strong as the weakest link."

Although the team has narrowly lost the past two games, there isn't any sense among the team or the coaching staff that it's time to look for, much less press, a panic button.

"We've approached the last two weeks like we've approached every week. We grade the film, we see what we can improve on, and then we focus on next week's game, and work on the things we can control," said Smith, who plays guitar and banjo in what little free time he has and lists Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix as his major influences.

Going into Saturday's game at Arizona State, Smith is optimistic.

"We've got a good game plan, and we've had good practices, what we're doing is focusing on little things, like reads, and assignments, and maintaining our focus."

Although the team's conditioned to put losses behind them and focus on the upcoming game, there is that brief moment when the sting of a loss sets in.

"After the game it eats at you," said Smith. "The Pac-10's a great conference and there are tough opponents week in and week out. We can't focus on last week; that's in the past. We have to move on. With this season, you can't put anybody above anybody else, whether it's Stanford or UCLA.  It's been a game of inches, and anything can and has happened."

Coming over from Duke has been an adjustment for Smith. Several photos that showed the small crowds at Duke football games were well-circulated throughout the Internet.  While Cal fans remember those days from the not-so-distant past, thankfully, those days haven't been around during the past couple of years.

"The biggest difference is obviously wins and losses, but I can't say anything bad about Duke," said Smith. "Cal has a culture of winning, Duke hasn't had that, and they haven't developed that know-how to win."

Smith took advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed him to transfer schools without sitting out a year if he were able to graduate early. He was a linebacker at Duke during 2004 and 2005 but sat out 2006 with an injury.  Consequently, he's now a junior with two years of eligibility left.

"I planned on graduating in three years. I'm a competitive person and set that as a goal," said Smith, who while at Duke had the team's top power clean lift (352 pounds) and second-highest squat lift (530 pounds). "I was made aware of the rule during my sophomore year, but I didn't give it much thought until I was hurt during my junior year. I then pursued it, and called the NCAA, found out what was encompassed in the rule, then when I found out I was going to redshirt at Duke, pursued it farther."

Deciding to play football was one thing, finding a program was another.  For Smith, it was never going to be simply a matter of choosing a football team with a fancy record.

"It was both academics and athletics," said Smith, who's from the Atlanta area. "I thought Cal offered the best combination of both. I also looked at Michigan and Oklahoma and thought Cal would be best for me. Also, Cal wanted me to play fullback, which was more of my natural position. I also liked the philosophy of coaching here. Plus, it's California; the Bay Area's great."

Coming from Duke, Smith has had a unique vantage point on two of the bigger sports stories in recent times.

First, is playing football at a school that's known primarily for basketball.   With Dick Vitale and Billy Packer singing the praises of Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski at every turn, the Blue Devils have been perennially one of college basketball's strongest teams, having reached 10 consecutive Sweet 16s, along with multiple conference championships and tourney wins.  And with the women's team having the #1 ranking for much of last season, there's little question that much of Duke's identity is tied into the success of its basketball teams.

Although there could be a temptation for student-athletes to be resentful of all of the attention that the basketball teams received, Smith wasn't one of them.

"There are a lot of people who viewed the fact that the football team was overshadowed by the basketball team as a bad thing," said Smith. "I looked at it the other way around and saw the basketball team as bringing an elite status to the University. The better they did, the happier I was. The alumni would be happy, and they would be giving more money. I never looked at it like we were competing for the limelight."

The far bigger story at Duke was the issues surrounding the men's lacrosse team.

In April 2007,  North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped charges against three Duke lacrosse players who were accused of rape.  In a story that inflamed Durham's town-and-gown relations, polarized the campus, and had commentators across the country weighing in, the case fell apart under conflicting testimony from the plaintiff, unimpeachable alibis by two of the defendants, and prosecutorial misconduct that resulted in a criminal contempt conviction for the Durham County District Attorney.

Although the case was dropped, it was not without a cost.  While the incident took place in March 2006, there was a period of 13 months when the future of several people awaited resolution. Additionally the remainder of the Duke lacrosse season was suspended, the head coach resigned, and the gravity of the incident was felt by all Duke students, not just student-athletes.

"Everybody who had a connection with Duke was affected by what went on with the lacrosse team," said Smith. "I had friends on the men's and women's lacrosse teams, and as everything transpired, I'd get calls from them about the pressure they were feeling. Some people had their cars keyed if they had a lacrosse bumper sticker on it. All of the players were demonized.  Those are my friends; those are people that I go to class with, and it had an effect on me.  If I didn't realize it earlier, I came out of it realizing that we are college athletes, and everything we do is scrutinized, and you have to be careful about who you hang with, where you are, and not let yourself get painted into a rough situation."

Smith is then asked if that level of scrutiny is fair. On one hand, there's a large percentage of college students that can conduct themselves as they want, make the occasional mistake, and still have it fall under the radar.  Student-athletes don't have that luxury.

"It's fair," said Smith.  "Anyone who's a public figure, whether you're a politician, an actor, a spokesman, or a student-athlete, there's attention that comes with the limelight. Now if you're a college student and a freshman or sophomore, you need someone to tell you that you need to be careful. Coach Tedford is always talking about that, and how people are looking at us and how we need to conduct ourselves as leaders."

More than six months have elapsed since the case was ended, and in the eyes of many, the story is over. But for others, the process of rebuilding their lives will go on, quite possibly forever.

"I think a small part of the public understands (the seriousness of what happened) and those closest to the university know," said Smith.  "But most people don't understand the impact. Those guys had to leave school. They had to postpone their educations and not play sports. Reade Seligmann's a good friend of mine. His girlfriend was at school, but he wasn't allowed to be around campus.  Anytime somebody's accused of something there's always going to be some doubt, regardless of what the outcome is. They're always going to be known as the accused lacrosse players, and it's something they'll have to carry around a long time.

Having left that behind, Smith is thrilled to be at Berkeleyy, yet for him it's not simply an issue of football, nor is it simply the graduate school.

"The best part at been being has been Cal as an institution," said Smith, who's in the Graduate School of Education, and is pondering taking the LSAT next spring. That could put him in the rare position of being a football player who could not only complete his second degree shortly after completing his eligibility, but could be accepted into a third degree program. "It's been an outstanding all-around experience, and it's far exceeded my expectations. The professors have been great; the football team has been successful, and we're still fighting for a conference championship and a Rose Bowl."  

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