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Andy Furillo: Linebacker Cameron Smith a true freshman rarity at USC

Cameron Smith (5) brings down a Vacaville High School runner during a game in Granite Bay last September. Two years earlier, as a sophomore, Smith was the leading tackler on Granite Bay’s state championship team.
Cameron Smith (5) brings down a Vacaville High School runner during a game in Granite Bay last September. Two years earlier, as a sophomore, Smith was the leading tackler on Granite Bay’s state championship team. aseng@sacbee.com

The last time a true freshman started at middle linebacker for USC to open the football season, a New Zealander named Riki Gray helped the 1978 Trojans beat Texas Tech, and they went on to win the national championship.

Gray later changed his last name to Ellison, and it was under that identification that Riki played for the 49ers the years they won Super Bowls XIX, XXIII and XIV.

Thirty-seven years later, or about half the time it takes Halley’s comet to fly past Earth, it is about to happen again – a true freshman will run the show from the middle of the defense in the USC opener. The Trojan coaching staff will make its final determination before Saturday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum televised on the Pac-12 Network. And it is highly likely the stadium announcer will interrupt the prancing of Traveler to call out the name of Cameron Smith, a star out of Granite Bay.

“It’s really going to be an awesome experience,” Smith said by telephone.

A rib injury to senior Lamar Dawson, the fifth-year senior who had been projected to start at inside backer, gave Smith a chance to run with the “ones” all week in practice.

When Smith writes his autobiography, he might want to entitle it, “Playing Up.” Legend has it that he played Pop Warner football with eighth graders when he was only in the fourth. Even when Dawson recovers, there’s a chance the freshman will continue to start. In high school, he led Granite Bay’s state championship team in tackles. It only follows the script for him to start the opener for the history-laden, eighth-ranked USC.

“He was a grown man when he was in high school,” said Granite Bay coach Jeff Evans, in his first year as head man for the Grizzlies.

Smith is a fast, strong 6-foot-2, 245-pound manchild. His highlight tapes from high school show a run stopper who repels ballcarriers upon engagement – preventing yards after contact. If they kept stats on YAC, Smith surely would be a leader in the fewest allowed. Google his hit on Soma Vainuku in USC’s spring game. While watching the video, keep in mind that is a 255-pound grown senior the freshman Smith is clobbering, at a time when Smith would have been in high school had he not chosen to enroll early in college.

Beyond his physicality, film study on Smith also shows he has great instincts when it comes to dropping into coverage. He intercepted 11 passes during his career at Granite Bay, and reports from spring practice at USC say he continued to snatch passes. This comes in handy against the hurry-up offenses of the modern college game, where quarterbacks rush the teams to the line of scrimmage before defenses can make situational substitutions. Linebackers these days need to be fast enough to cover, as well as tough enough to knock someone into next week.

Smith is both, which became evident at USC when he arrived at the downtown L.A. campus eight months ago.

“He got here in January, and he’s done a really good job of getting in and becoming part of the team, a young guy, but continuing to be very hungry on learning and improving himself physically and getting a better understanding of football and just what’s going to be required at the college level,” said Trojans linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. “That early enrollment paid a lot of dividends for him. He had a good spring, stayed here and had a good summer of workouts in the weight room. He stayed consistent and improved every day in fall camp.”

Sirmon was an All-Pacific-10 Conference selection in his college days at Oregon and played six years in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, where he was the team’s second-leading tackler in 2002. Before he came to USC from Washington last year with head coach Steve Sarkisian, Sirmon coached Grant High School great Shaq Thompson. Sirmon hesitated to compare Smith to anybody. He described him as “a very mature young man,” “a well-rounded player,” “emotionally consistent,” “a very physical player who does a good job of embracing that part of the game,” with “good instincts on the passing game.”

“There’s a lot of stuff he can improve on, but he’ll be fun to watch perform in his first college opportunity,” Sirmon said.

Smith has been issued No. 35, the same number worn by Riki Gray. Over the years the school has reserved it for tough, physical inside linebackers, some of whom have been a little crazy. One of them, Rex Moore, in 1984 lovingly picked up a handful of mud on a stormy day at the Coliseum and threw it in the face of a Notre Dame player.

Smith implied he will do no mudslinging against Arkansas State on Saturday, in the event of an early El Niño arrival.

“I try to keep poised,” Smith said.

He is aware that true freshman middle linebackers don’t start openers often, at USC or anywhere else.

“Yeah, there’s pressure, but I try not to think about it,” Smith said. “I try to go out there and play the best way I can and just be prepared when the time comes.”

And when it does, he’ll let ’em have it.

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