Cameron Smith was born big at 11 pounds, 2 ounces.
As a fourth-grader, he crashed into eighth-graders in youth football, sparing his age-group peers bodily harm. And when Granite Bay High School coach Ernie Cooper saw Smith, now running roughshod as a linebacker at USC, he did a double take.
This, Cooper thought, is an incoming freshman?
“Here’s this thick-bodied kid, mature, and I asked him, ‘Hey, how old are you?’ ” Cooper said Sunday. “We still laugh about it now.”
Smith played on the freshman team his first year at Granite Bay, because he wasn’t 15 yet and therefore ineligible for the varsity. He played quarterback, which Cooper said seemed a bit inhumane since Smith was no ordinary freshman.
He’s no ordinary freshman now, either.
Smith, now 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, intercepted three passes, returning them a combined 122 yards, to lead USC to a 42-24 victory over then-No. 3 Utah on Saturday. He returned the first interception 41 yards to the 4-yard line to set up a second-quarter touchdown, then returned his second 54 yards for a score that gave the Trojans a 28-14 lead just before halftime. With just under nine minutes to play, he became the first USC player to intercept three passes in a game since 1991, returning it 27 yards.
Smith, who also had a team-high nine tackles, was named the Pacific-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.
After the victory, Smith – muddied with a gash glistening on the bridge of his nose – was atop a ladder, USC sword in hand, headband in place, leading the Trojan Marching Band fight song, a rare honor for a freshman.
“We needed a spark,” USC interim coach Clay Helton said after the game. “And (Smith) gave it to us. Unbelievable. He won the game for us.”
Said a composed Smith: “I just saw the ball coming my way and just tried to make an impact.”
Smith has made an impact for years. He was a three-time Sacramento Bee first-team All-Metro linebacker at Granite Bay, where he set school tackling records. He graduated early from Granite Bay and enrolled at USC in January, eager to take the Pacific-12 head on.
122 Return yardage on Cameron Smith’s three interceptions, one for a touchdown, in USC’s upset of then-No. 3 Utah
Smith, the first USC freshman to start a season at middle linebacker since Riki Gray in 1978, leads the team with 62 tackles. And he has brought good vibes to hungry Trojans fans after the firing of coach Steve Sarkisian cast an ominous shadow on the program.
Cooper and his wife, Carol, watched Saturday’s game at their Placer County home, racing around their living room after each interception.
“Oh, we were going crazy here,” Cooper said. “We’re really excited for Cam, so proud.”
Cooper said Smith embraced the weight room at Granite Bay, drawing a crowd to his Herculean efforts.
“One day, he’s doing parallel back squats, and the room just stops to watch him, everyone hootin’ and hollerin’, going nuts,” Cooper said. “Cam is the leader … and the place was electric. The bar was bending, two spotters on each side, a spotter behind him, and he’s doing a full squat, just blowing it up. He did 10 consecutive reps at 430 pounds, each rep below parallel. That equates to 560-pound max. The place was rocking.”
Cooper has seen six Granite Bay football players reach the NFL, including linebackers Dallas Sartz and Miles Burris. Though it’s too early to project Smith’s future, he’s off to an impressive start at USC, as he was at Granite Bay.
“Before his sophomore season, there wasn’t any discussion about Cam playing varsity,” said Cooper, who left as Granite Bay’s coach after last season. “He was a man from the get-go. He left at midyear, graduated early, with the sole purpose of getting acclimated at USC. He was ready for it, physically and emotionally, and you can see it.”
Smith intercepted 11 passes at Granite Bay, but he had a case of the drops in earlier USC games, so last week, he spent extra time after practice catching footballs fired from a JUGS machine.
“Cameron is very instinctual,” USC linebackers coach Peter Sirmon told the Los Angeles Daily News. “We saw that on film when he was in high school, and we saw it when he joined us this winter. I haven’t seen anything that would tell you he’s a true freshman.”