Murrieta Mesa Lineman Nathan Smith Heads Off to USC

Nathan Smith and his family pose with football coach Justin Schaeffer as he prepares to leave for USC on a football scholarship. Murrieta...

Nathan Smith and his family pose with football coach Justin Schaeffer as he prepares to leave for USC on a football scholarship.
Murrieta 24/7 photos: Doug Spoon

The football coaching staff, players and school administrators said goodbye Friday to Nathan Smith, the most heavily recruited student-athlete in the history of Murrieta Mesa High School.

Smith, a 6-foot-7, 273-pound lineman, committed early to USC on a full scholarship and attended his last day of classes at Mesa Friday before enrolling for the spring semester of college. He leaves as one of the most highly recruited players in the Inland Empire this year, having received about 40 Division I scholarship offers before selecting the Trojans.

"A lot of kids become arrogant and hard to coach," head football coach Justin Schaeffer said about players who enjoy this kind of success. "That was never the case with Nate. It could've been easy for him to lose his head. But he's not a chest-pounding kind of young man. He has handled this so wonderfully. He's the first student athlete from our program to receive a Division IA scholarship. I couldn't be more proud of Nathan and happy for him."

It was more than just his size that made Smith stand out on a team that posted a combined record of 9-11 the last two seasons and won just two of 10 league games. His aggressive play on both the offensive and defensive lines were a key part of the program's growth. The Rams posted a .500 overall record this year (5-5) and won two league games, finishing with their first-ever victory over Chaparral.

Playing for a team that failed to qualify for the CIF playoffs, Smith heard the questions as college recruiters began to notice his individual talents. Would he transfer to a more competitive program, where he might get even more recognition? Yet he never considered transferring or losing track of his goal to help make his team better.

That determination and humility will serve him well in the college ranks, his coach said.

"I'm sure he would've been welcomed with open arms at any other campus around, but I don't believe it was something that ever entered his mind," Schaeffer said. "We hear rumors about kids transferring, but that's not something that surrounded him in any way, shape or form. People have asked him, 'Are you thinking about transferring?' and he says, 'Why would I transfer?'

"It hasn't hindered his opportunities. He didn't need to go anywhere and do anything differently than he did to create the opportunity he got."

Smith reacted as expected when asked how it felt to be the most highly touted athlete ever at his school, saying, "I just feel like a regular football player." He also acknowledged that he never considered transferring to a a high-profile program.

"It's better to build something than just be a cog in the wheel," he said. "Sometimes with other teams, you get an attitude, a chip on your shoulder. This team here fights. We always worked together."

Schaeffer said he first began to notice Smith's ability during his play against Rancho Verde early in his junior season. But he considers his break-out game to be a few weeks later in a 50-47 overtime loss to Murrieta Valley on Oct. 10, 2014. In that game, McKinley Ross ran for 263 yards and 6 touchdowns -- due in large part to the holes Smith opened for him.

"Nathan got co-Offensive Player of the Game," Schaeffer said. "He was creating so many lanes and holes for McKinley to run through. He was running downfield 30 yards, laying blocks. As we were looking at game films the next day we thought, 'Those are amazing stats by McKinley, but look at Nathan sprinting downfield in front of him.' We knew he was something incredibly special."

So did college recruiters, who also liked the versatility Smith showed for a big man.

"We videotaped him power (lifting) in the weight room," Schaeffer said. "A kid his size is usually very stiff and not flexible. But Nathan, his rear almost touches the ground, he's so flexible when he lifts. He's a knee bender and a hip bender. That's something college coaches really look for in an offensive lineman."

Smith plans to study business accounting or business administration at USC. He realizes there is no guarantee he will play right away, but he is approaching the situation with his usual focus and determination.

"I love the game and I do whatever I can to help the team," he said. "I'm enrolling early to get started, put on some weight and be ready. I'm going there to compete my butt off.

"Hearing from USC was pretty sweet," said Smith, who also considered Arizona State, Nebraska and Missouri before USC came into the picture. "It was cool when they called. It's a legendary school and I know I'm ending up in the right place."

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