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Whiz Kid

Steve Smith Is Onl;y 15, but He's Ready to Dominate for Taft

September 03, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — Whenever someone discovers Steve Smith of Taft High is only 15, reaction is the same: Disbelief.

All summer, whether dunking a basketball or making a one-handed catch on the football field, Smith created the kind of buzz unmatched by a sophomore since the days Russell White led Crespi to a Division I football title in 1986.

"I don't think anyone realizes how good he can be," said Brandon Hance, former Taft quarterback who is a freshman at Purdue.

Despite no varsity football experience, Smith has convinced coaches, teammates and opponents the hype is legitimate.

Those who saw him score 27 touchdowns last season on the freshman-sophomore team as a receiver and defensive back swear he could have done the same at the varsity level. Except he was 14, too young to play varsity.

In varsity basketball, he averaged 17.3 points per game in helping Taft finish with a 20-3 record.

This summer, he got to compete against varsity football players in seven-on-seven passing competitions. It didn't take long for him to earn respect.

"Our last passing game was against Carson," Coach Troy Starr said. "They have excellent athletes and they had to double cover him. He's a special athlete, there's no doubt about it."

Passing competitions don't allow tackling, so some might wonder how Smith will perform when shoulder pads and helmets are worn. A warning: Tackling is what Smith does best.

"That's my favorite thing," he said. "I like being aggressive, I like making the hit."

The 6-foot-1 1/2, 170-pound Smith has a 32-inch vertical leap and can accelerate with the best. Much of his strength and speed come from thighs that are thicker than the largest dictionary. He can palm a basketball. But it's his uncanny control of his body that makes Smith unique.

"He has a kinesthetic awareness," Starr said. "That means he can control his body anywhere--in the air, on the ground or whatever. That is the rarest thing ever and when you accompany that with speed . . . he has the ability to have another speed on the field. You can time him as much as you want in the 40 and he'll be fast, but he has another gear on the field he can call upon that is something else."

Smith has been playing tackle football since he was 11. There have been few days when he wasn't the best.

As a 13-year-old, he was the receiver and Justin Cassel of Chatsworth the quarterback for the unbeaten Northridge Knights. Cassel has since dropped football to focus on baseball, but from that one season, he learned plenty about Smith's talents.

"Steve was amazing," he said. "He had great speed and could leap over the middle and make a one-handed catch like Jerry Rice on a Sunday. He would get off the line so quick. You have your typical baseball, football, basketball athletes, but nobody like him. He has the fundamentals to go play on Saturdays and Sundays."

But the success Smith has experienced doesn't mean he's invincible. Starr said Smith has developed occasional bad habits from being much better than athletes his own age.

"He had gotten away with things that he shouldn't get away with," Starr said. "In covering someone, he'll turn the wrong way and look at the quarterback, which is a sure way to getting beat. But because he can turn, accelerate and intercept the ball, he can get away with it. But when you play real good teams, something he was exposed to a couple times, he got beat."

The challenge for Smith is to keep improving and maturing. Starr is always telling Smith he wants to see him "go to Wall Street." His parents insist academics come before athletics.

"They say you don't really need to get an athletic scholarship," Smith said. "You can get a scholarship for school. I'm realizing you can't squeeze by anymore. You have to put in the work."

Smith enrolled in an honors English class last semester. It was filled with intelligent, goal-oriented students, bringing out Smith's competitiveness. He got a B. He liked writing essays. One paper focused on a play involving Helen Keller.

"It was on her and how I could relate to her," Smith said. "I related to her because of her focus to get over her blindness. I have to strive to get better in the classroom and on the football field."

Much of Smith's development over the next three years will be guided by Starr, who knows he is undertaking a special responsibility.

"I'm glad I'm getting him after 12 years of coaching experience because in my younger years I don't know if I would have been mature enough to bring him along the way he needs to be brought along, which is keeping a kid grounded, not being overly awed by his physical ability to where you want to be his buddy and give him extra attention," he said. "That's the last thing he needs. We've had great players and we're going to prepare this kid for the day he has to walk away from football."

Smith is motivated by a saying his father told him: "Always think somebody out there is better than you."

The problem is there aren't many 15-year-olds better than Smith, let alone 18-year-olds.

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