Hometown Report

‘It was like, Yo!’ USC’s Cameron Smith impressing opponents. Wait until pads go on.

USC linebacker Cam Smith speaks at Pac-12 media day Thursday in Los Angeles.
USC linebacker Cam Smith speaks at Pac-12 media day Thursday in Los Angeles. AP

Jamal Morrow hasn’t been run over by Cameron Smith in game action, but he can sense a specimen in any setting.

Morrow is the Washington State running back who represented the Cougars at Pacific-12 Conference media day on Thursday, and one regal sort caught his eye.

“I saw Cameron walking round, big and strong, a real presence, and it was like, ‘Yo!’ ” Morrow said with a laugh. “He’s definitely impressive.”

Smith has carried that label since his upbringing in Granite Bay, well before his tackling prowess with the Trojans as a linebacker. He will be a third-year starting junior for USC, a defensive team captain for a program that looks the part of national championship contender after ending last season with a nine-game winning streak.

Smith, on the watch list for the Bednarik Award given to the nation’s top defensive player, dressed like a leader on Thursday: beige slacks and a USC polo that stretched over his muscled 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame. He has the sort of arms and lower-body base that leads one to wonder if he could hurl beer kegs over a wall, full.

And shoes? No cleats here. Smith wore loafers, minus the socks. Hey, it’s Los Angeles and anything goes. Smith’s in-game intensity belies his off-field free-spirited mood.

Smith has been deemed by USC coach Clay Helton as “the quarterback of our defense.” It is a role Smith embraces. This is a man who enjoys every aspect of the sport, including film study and the weight room.

“It’s an honor,” Smith said of his role as captain. “I’m really focused on being a good leader. It’s a different role for me, getting guys lined up, ready. Lead by example, and being vocal.”

During his Granite Bay youth, Smith’s performance screamed of ability. He was always the most imposing lad on the field, born big at 11 pounds, 2 ounces. As a fourth-grader, Smith would line up against eighth-graders, and he often won those tussles.

The first time Ernie Cooper met Smith was during freshman orientation at Granite Bay. In walked this red-haired bulk. Burly arms, thick legs, thick neck, focused look, followed by the more typical 14-year-olds who were all arms and legs.

“He comes in, and I’m, ‘Whoa, big boy! Where did you come from?’ ” said Cooper, who coached Smith at Granite Bay. “Let’s check that kid’s birth certificate. And we did. And he’s 14 years old? He was a big young man then, and he’s a man now. Really a man.”

Smith’s coaches at Granite Bay still marvel at how his bench-press efforts would literally bend the bar, like a cartoon scene. And when a coach was ready to move into another house, Smith was the coveted muscle to hoist the heavy stuff: couches, piano, floor safe.

Smith visits the Granite Bay weight room in the winter to catch up with coaches and to implore students to work and chase dreams. Smith is something of a legend in Placer County, the big kid who has made it big with a lot more seemingly on the way. He is a projected first-round pick, should he forgo his senior campaign. Granite Bay has produced six NFL players over 15 years, which, Cooper said, “is pretty amazing for a little community like this.”

In 22 USC starts, Smith has recorded 161 tackles. He is a combination of power and instincts. He led USC in tackles as a freshman despite missing the final four games with a sore knee. Smith led USC with 45 solo takedowns last season. A highlight at USC includes climbing a ladder, USC sword in hand, leading the Trojan Marching Band fight song.

“He’s reaping the rewards of hard work,” Cooper said. “We’re all very proud of him here. I know he won’t talk about the NFL. He’s too focused.”

Smith admits to only one thing: His career has gone by in a flash. He was so eager to get to USC that he graduated from Granite Bay in the winter of his senior year, accelerating his college progress.

“It was something I always wanted to do once I started getting recruited,” Smith said. “I thought it would be beneficial. It was the best decision I made. I’d advise it to anyone. It’s important to get a head start. It helped me.”

He added about his drive to excel, “It’s how I was raised. I grew up early, fast, matured quicker than others. That all helped me to where I am today.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD