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Mr. Smith Survives at Washington : Former Antelope Valley Standout Stays Eligible, Becomes Feared Safety

October 01, 1992|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Others are quick to agree. "Between the lines he's never been a problem," Huskies secondary Coach Chris Tormey said. "You never have a problem with him on the field. It's when he gets off the field you have to worry a little bit.

"He just puts things off and puts things off until he's right up against it. But when it gets to a point, he digs in and gets done whatever he needs to get done. We just wish he'd take care of those things a little bit sooner."

Added James: "When he applies himself and tries, he can do it. And that goes both for in the classroom and out on the football field."

Certainly, Smith's contributions between the sidelines have left no cause for complaint. He is a three-year letterman who has been a starter more often than not. Washington has won three bowl games--two of them Rose Bowls--during his tenure.

James says he "rates right up there" with the best defensive backs to play at Washington.

Smith's physical ability has been obvious since he was in high school. As a senior, he carried Antelope Valley--virtually one-handed--to a Southern Section Division II title. He rushed for 2,018 yards, had 13 receptions for 185 yards, averaged 43.4 yards in 13 kickoff returns, had seven interceptions, returned a fumble for a touchdown and scored 182 points. For good measure, he punted for a 38.6-yard average.

"You get a horse or a stallion and you ride him," Newcomb said. "That's what we did. We hopped on Tommie's back and he took us all the way to the (Southern Section) championship."

Before the title game against Canyon, Smith promised a 200-yard rushing performance. He delivered that and more.

In a 28-22 victory, he received the handoff on 32 of the Antelopes' 39 offensive plays and rushed for 218 yards. He scored three touchdowns on offense, added a two-point conversion, and scored again on a 48-yard interception return.

"He did it all," Canyon Coach Harry Welch said. "Had he been off the field for any extended period of time, we win."

Welch had seen similar acts by Smith before. As a sophomore defensive end, Smith was in on the tackle that ended Canyon's Southern Section record-tying 46-game winning streak in 1986. In the final seconds of Antelope Valley's 21-20 victory, Smith helped drag down Cowboy quarterback Ken Sollom inches shy of the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt.

His first big high school game.

His first big play.

Even as a sophomore Smith was a two-way starter, playing tight end and defensive end on an Antelope Valley team that advanced to the Southern Section final before losing to Muir.

The stars of that team were running back Eric Mortensen, who played at Brigham Young, and offensive tackle James Richards, a two-year starter at California who is on the Phoenix Cardinals' developmental squad.

"College scouts would come in here to watch film on those guys and they'd stop the film and say, 'Tell me about your tight end,' " Newcomb said. "I'd say, 'He's a 15-year-old sophomore.' They loved him even then."

As a senior Smith was recruited by several nationally ranked teams, including USC. He said he decided on Washington because it was "not too far and not too close. I wanted a chance to grow."

In August, 1989, during workouts before his freshman season, Smith's rapid climb up the Husky depth chart at tailback stopped when he suffered a knee injury after he awkwardly caught his foot in the artificial turf.

In retrospect, he might consider the injury a twist of fate, for it led to his switch to the secondary.

Smith underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a partial cartilage tear, sidelining him for three weeks. About the time Smith was back at full strength, Washington was hit by injuries to three of its safeties.

His first game was against USC in the Coliseum and he made a memorable debut. On his second play he blocked a punt, scooped up the ball and sprinted 32 yards for a touchdown.

His first college game.

His first big play.

Soon came his first big college disappointment. Only three weeks after the USC game, he was forced to miss the UCLA game as punishment for missing classes.

"When he gets done here and is able to concentrate on football eight hours every day, he's going to get that much better, that much more consistent," Tormey said.

Indeed, Smith is expected to be among the first defensive backs taken in the April NFL draft.

However, he has additional plans. He says he is going to stay in school and pursue a degree in African-American studies, although he doesn't know how many units he needs to graduate.

"If I do get drafted I still want my diploma to fall back on," Smith said.

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