Behind The Verbal

Mission Viejo (Calif.) offensive lineman Cole Smith is rated the No. 10 player at center nationally, but his pedigree as a snapper goes far deeper than any scale or yardstick can measure.

One could argue Mission Viejo (Calif.) center Cole Smith was born a Trojan, but that would be inaccurate.

According to his father, Doug, who coached the offensive line at USC under John Robinson, Cole had his own tie to Trojan football before he was born.

“My wife and I actually found out we were pregnant with Cole the week of the Rose Bowl when we played Northwestern, so he was even conceived around the Rose Bowl” laugh his father. “He also has a sister that is a USC graduate, and I snapped the ball for Pat Haden my first two years in the league, so he had been a teammate and friend.

“Todd Hewitt, the equipment manager at USC, was my equipment man my whole NFL career. Then John Robinson, who is a great Trojan, has been a great help to me in my life. The ties to USC are strong.”

But strong ties looked more like loose ends when Smith attended the USC Linemen Camp last June and walked off campus without a scholarship offer.

“That day, I just came off of the Stanford camp, so I was a little tired, but I went in and gave it my all,” said Smith. “Coach (Tim) Drevno really seemed to like me, but at the end of the day, he didn’t end up offering me.

“He said he did like me, and that he still wanted to keep in contact, but I walked away with nothing. Then I went to the UCLA camp, which by the end of that day they offered me. I was always a USC kid growing up, but after that I wasn’t sure what was best for me.

“I was thinking real hard about UCLA, but then they (USC) came back a couple weeks ago and offered me. I took a couple days and I realized I couldn’t pass up the chance to go to SC. That’s when I ended up committing.”

While Drevno was impressed with Smith’s performance at the Linemen Camp, the plan at that point during the summer was to over-recruit the offensive tackle position and worry about a center later.

“What Coach Drevno in particular told me is that they were going to offer four tackles this year because they wanted some length and long arms,” said smith. “So basically they went into their summer camp and they knew Max Tuerk was doing fine for them, but they knew he was going to leave after this year or after his senior year.

“They knew that they didn’t really have a backup at this point and that’s where they were starting to kind of think that they’d rather go for a ‘center breed,’ which he explained as someone who was used to having the ball in their hands, used to making calls, used to reading fronts, so that’s why they ended up offering me.”

Centers are a different breed

Smith's years of training at center resonated with USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, who called it “the center breed.”

And in terms of bloodlines, Smith’s father was a six time Pro Bowl center for the Los Angeles Rams before coaching the position in the NFL and college.

“The reality is that you have to see if a kid is a competitor in those camps,” said Doug Smith. “Video doesn’t always show that. The coaches did a great job communicated to us that they wanted to recruit tackles, and then maybe covert one of those guys to center.

“But you can’t coach centers like you do guards and tackles. To give it to you in a nutshell, because otherwise it may take several hours if not years to explain, the ball is an extension of your hand as a center.

“You have to do things differently because when you snap the ball, you only have one hand available. You snap the ball, your feet move rapidly and it’s all a little different depending on whether you are using the shotgun, run blocking, pass blocking etc.

“If you’ve done it 100 times, it’s not that much of a problem. But you have to train the habits and movements of a guard or tackle out of a player converting to the center position. Some guys get it and some guys just don’t.

“I ended up playing in my 15th training camp and a couple of extra years in the NFL just because we tried to covert tackles into centers and it didn’t work.”

Smith gets playing center because it was the position he was indoctrinated to play from an early age.

“I actually started out playing soccer and then I made the transition to football at 8 or 9-years-old,” said Smith. “When I was 8 or 9-years-old, my head coach found out that my dad played center in the NFL. He immediately put me in at center, but I had no idea what I was doing.

“I didn’t know how to snap a ball. I didn’t know how to even hold a ball really. My first couple years, I was horrible, so it was kind of a gradual process to where I am at now. It’s kind of impressive, now looking back, that I played maybe one quarter a game my first year, (maybe) two quarters. Now I’ve been starting on every team since sixth grade.”

Along the way, Cole always had the guidance and experience of his father playing at the game’s highest level. But Doug Smith is quick to praise those who taught him.

“I had great mentors in the NFL who helped me along, so I was just trying to pass along what I learned to my son, who I care for immensely,” said Smith. “I had a coach named Dan Radakovich, who won five Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hudson Houck, who was a great offensive line coach for John Robinson, taught me a lot. Rich Saul, who played for the Rams mentored me. And Tom Mack, who went to the Pro Bowl almost all 12, 13 years he played. It’s been a joy to give help Cole and give him what I know.”

However, the coach/player relationship between father and son didn’t develop as soon in Cole’s life as one might assume. In fact, Doug delayed Cole’s enrollment in Pop Warner.

“I didn’t want to be known as one of those crazy dad’s that played a long time, loved it, and then decided to force his kid to do the same,” said Smith. “Then my wife said, ‘Okay, he’s playing football. He wants to play, we’ll let him play.’

“So that was that. And of course, he got typecast as a center, so I was able to come in and help coach the team.” From that point forward, father and son have worked diligently on the nuances of playing center.

“My dad is definitely very involved in my center play,” said Cole. “It kind of gets annoying watching NFL games with him sometimes just because he breaks down every move of the center and the defensive fronts, but it is helpful, so I have to thank him for that.

“What he preaches to me all the time, is how crucial the left hand is. Since you’re a center snapping with you right hand, it’s almost like a reaction where your right hand goes back to snap the ball and then your left hand comes up.

“As you watch other high school centers, you really don’t see that much. That’s really helpful in my game and he preaches that to me on the daily.”

Smith, listed at 6-foot-3, 255-pounds on the Diablos’ football roster, has the short term goal of bringing a CIF Title back to Mission Viejo, but also the long term goal of preparing his body for the rigors of college football next summer.

“I’m about 270-pounds right now,” said Smith. “I’m slowly trying to put on weight — trying to not do it too fast. I want to be somewhere around 285 or 290 when I’m coming into camp next year.”

Doug Smith put aside his No. 1 dad coffee mug and picked up his headset to assed Cole’s transition to the next level.

“He’s put on about 20 pounds a year the past three years, so that would put him in the neighborhood of 280 when he gets to USC,” said Smith. “Cole’s a good student, and does well academically, and the Mission Viejo coaches do a fabulous job with film study. That will help him a lot on college.

“Cole can also long snap, and we’ve worked on that quite a bit. We’ve always worked on him doing many different things because it increases your value to the team. He participates in the shot-put and discuss in track. He played basketball, which obviously helps with footwork and coordination in football.

“In the NFL we had a saying, ‘The more you can do, the longer you can stay around.’”

Going into USC next June as a true freshman, Smith could stick around for four, or five years depending on his physical development.

“I definitely want to get there and compete for a starting job, but then I think I might take a redshirt year just because I might not bulk up real fast,” said Smith. “I can learn under Tuerk for a year, but I want to get in there and play as fast as I can.”

Smith says he is fully committed to USC, so his focus and path to college are clear. On the field, he will play center and possibly gets reps as a long-snapper.

Off the field, he will major in business and hope to maintain his 4.2 GPA on his way to a college degree.

“I took the week to think about it,” said Smith. “I thought about USC and UCLA. I switched on the daily. Then the last couple of days before my birthday, I was like ‘I can’t pass up a USC scholarship.’

“Besides their legacy, they’re coming off sanctions, so they’ll be back up in the top in a year or two, maybe even this year. There’s this alumni network with the business school that is unbelievable and I just realized that there is nothing better for me.”

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