GRANADA HILLS — Kennedy High tailback Antwane Smith didn't exactly welcome a break from a grueling practice in scorching heat earlier this week.
When his coach called him over to talk to a reporter, not even the mask of his brown football helmet could hide the distress on his face.
"He's a quiet and shy kid," Kennedy Coach Bob Francola said. "The publicity has made him nervous. He's really feeling the pressure."
But Francola warned Smith long ago: If you play tailback at Kennedy, you get a lot of attention. After all, the team's offense is known as "tailback delight."
The position has been a springboard to Division I colleges in past years. Those who have earned scholarships include Ontiwaun Carter, Arizona's All-American candidate, Edwin Jones (Iowa State), Ron Hardy (Oregon), Elijah Raphael (Washington State) and Donte Scarbrough (San Jose State).
At Kennedy, the tailback racks up big numbers and becomes the obsession of the opposing team's defense.
How does a reserved 16-year-old junior, in his second season of varsity football, handle it?
"I just try to block it all out," Smith said. "I mean I walk around school and people say, 'You're the big man on campus. You are a superstar.' Of course I feel the pressure of it all, but I gotta ignore that and focus."
So far so good.
In three games, Smith has carried the ball 50 times for 473 yards, which ranks second in the area among City Section players. He also has 11 receptions for 107 yards and is the leading scorer among the Valley's City Section players with 56 points on nine touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Smith is smaller than most of Kennedy's previous backs but just as good, according to Sylmar Coach Jeff Engilman. "I think he's thinner than most of the backs they've had there but he still has the same technique," Engilman said. "His cutback is great and he shifts well. He's real tough and he's just a damn good runner."
Kennedy lost its opener, 16-14, to the top-ranked Spartans but Smith had a 63-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that made the loss a bit easier to take. The Golden Cougars will take a 2-1 record into tonight's North Valley League opener against neighborhood rival Granada Hills (1-2).
Smith says the pregame jitters that struck before the opener have faded and will not be around before tonight's showdown at Kennedy.
"I was very nervous against Sylmar," Smith said. "There was a lot of hype and people wanted to see who the next Kennedy tailback would be and can he live up to the tradition? It was nerve-racking."
Not as much as his sophomore season, though. Smith was moved to receiver because senior Scarbrough started at tailback. Smith had 23 catches for 352 yards and two touchdowns but disliked the position and counted the days until the season ended.
Since he began playing Pop Warner football at the age of 7, Smith had always been a running back and the switch was difficult.
"At first I thought, 'He's crazy!' " Smith said of Francola. "I had never even caught a ball. It was real strange."
Francola made Smith a receiver because Scarbrough was the team's key rusher, but Smith was too good to sit on the bench.
Besides, the Golden Cougars pitch the ball on most running plays so running backs need good hands. "You can't be a '90s tailback and be one-dimensional," Francola said. "You have to train with weights, you have to block and you have to be able to catch the ball. Antwane didn't do any of that when he came in."
Things have changed. Not that Smith is a natural at catching the ball, but he can hold his own.
He's also in better shape than last year and says he feels stronger, thanks to an intense weight-training program in the off-season.
Francola believes Smith will follow his predecessors and receive a Division I college scholarship.
"Some may say he's too small, but he makes up for it with speed," Francola said. "He has the same acceleration that all my great backs have had.
"By the time he gets out of here, he'll be twice as strong as he is now without losing any quickness and he'll be tougher."
And Smith probably will be more comfortable with the high profile of a Kennedy tailback.