Fullbacks and flankers groan when Ernie Cooper orders blitz blocking sessions in practice.
At least once a week, Cooper, the perpetually upbeat Granite Bay High School football coach, mandates that his players have to encounter the team’s immovable linebacker, the regal one who fills a door frame, stretches his T-shirt and looks like he’d impress a line of employers in need of a burly bouncer.
In other words, who wants to take on Cameron Smith?
“The guys say, ‘Come on, coach!’ ” Cooper said. “We get them all padded up, they run into him, and they still come out with headaches.”
Brian Graber, a 6-foot-5 wideout, would prefer to avoid a charging Smith. “But you’ve got to take him on in practice to avoid a butt-chewing from Coach Cooper,” Graber said.
Smith, a senior, is polite, except when he’s chasing down and tackling ballcarriers. At 6-3 and a sturdy 235 pounds, Smith is a blend of strength, instincts and quickness. When hits happen, Smith generally is the one still standing.
Smith, a three-year starter who has committed to USC, already looks like a college student with his hearty red beard, but he’s not quite ready to move on. First, he hopes to help the seventh-ranked Grizzlies win another championship – the quest begins Friday when they host No. 16 Cosumnes Oaks – and he embraces Cooper’s challenge to be a leader. The last time Smith and Cooper were together in a game was in December 2012, when the Grizzlies won the CIF State Division I championship over Long Beach Poly in Carson. Cooper took last season off to recharge.
“It’s a big year for us,” Smith said. “I’ll do what I can.”
Speaking of big, Smith knows he draws double-takes when he takes the field. He was born big – 11 pounds, 2 ounces – and as a fourth-grader he played against eighth-graders to spare his peers bodily harm. Smith said playing linebacker is as much a chess match as crushing a foe, but he does get some glee from knocking people around.
“Every now and then,” Smith said, “I’ll look down on someone and know I’m more powerful.”
With Cooper back as coach, the Grizzlies have a new aura of power, too. Cooper started Granite Bay’s football program in 1996. The Grizzlies won 10 league championships and Sac-Joaquin Section titles in 1999, 2000, 2007, 2011 and 2012. The crowning moment came in 2012, when the Grizzlies overcame a slow start to the season and won the state title. Smith, then a sophomore, had 196 tackles (he had 126 last year.).
Cooper fidgeted in his down time last year. He found no release in golf, and he was a ball of nerves watching games. Cooper enjoyed time with wife Carol and young daughter Miko, but football still was in his heart and soul. His wife and daughter knew it, too, and urged him to return to the sidelines.
On Monday night, Cooper joked about his sanity as he went over defensive schemes on a white board at 10 p.m. before locking up the stadium gate at 11:15 p.m.
“Why am I doing this?” Cooper wondered. “Last year, I had it made. But that’s the thing about coaching. It’s in you. I’m a coach. This is what I do. I don’t know what else I’d do. I’m enjoying it, and I’ll evaluate things after this year and every year. I know that if you don’t have the passion, if you’re not all in, you have to get out, and that’s what I did.
“But now, I’ll spend every waking moment to help these players, to work with these coaches.”
Cooper also had a message of sorts to Carol, one coaches everywhere deliver before the season.
“I told her, ‘I’ll see you in three months, hopefully in mid-December,’ ” Cooper said.
Players insist Cooper hasn’t changed. During practices and games, he darts from one spot to another, always urging his players.
Said Smith: “Cooper’s starting to get that stress back, so you know he’s into it. It was like, ‘Coop, chill a little!’ ”
Defensive coordinator Dallas Sartz, a former Grizzlies and USC linebacker who had a taste of the NFL before his shoulders and knees pleaded for him to quit, said opposing offenses will have their hands full with Smith, fellow linebacker Drew Tonda and defensive ends Mitchell Morse and Adam Gearing.
“We can be pretty good,” Sartz said. “It starts with Cameron. He loves this game, very intense. He’s a sponge and takes in everything we’re teaching.”
Sartz said if he ever needs help moving, Smith will be the first person he calls.
“Oh yeah, ‘Hey, get the couches!’ ” Sartz said, laughing.
Cooper agreed, saying, “Cameron, you got the piano!”
Smith used that strength during the summer, working a shovel and laying sod.
“I think of myself as a hard worker,” Smith said. “It was a great workout, and it’s good work. It means something.”
Now that he has turned his focus from yards to football fields, Smith certainly has the attention of his opponents.
“I’ve seen him up close and in person, and he looks the part,” Cosumnes Oaks quarterback Jaaron Stallworth said. “He’s big and he’s strong. I think I’ll just try running around him. Not sure he’d move if I ran into him.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.