He isn’t necessarily the most vocal player, nor the flashiest, but in a USC freshman class filled with talent, arguably no player has made more of an impact for the Trojans this season than linebacker Cameron Smith.
Standing 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds and possessing a rough-and-tumble brand of play that makes him a perfect fit on the inside at "Mike" linebacker, the former Granite Bay (California) standout has started every game in his initial season on campus, racking up a team-high 53 tackles.
If Smith keeps up his current pace, he’ll become the first true freshman to ever lead a Trojans team in tackles. And while his performance has come as nothing less than a revelation, this is what Smith envisioned all along.
“I never really knew that it was actually going to happen, but that was the plan coming in – just to make as much of an impact for the team as possible, and as fast as I could,” Smith said. “It’s going the way that I wanted right now, so I just have to keep learning and keep getting better every day.”
Arriving as an early enrollee in the spring -- a move which he credits for his rapid development -- Smith quickly showed that he not only had the physical makeup to potentially contribute from Day 1, but also the mental tools and work ethic.
His growth continued over the summer, and with projected starter Lamar Dawson sidelined with a rib injury for much of August, Smith took firm hold of a starting role in fall camp and never looked back.
Showing signs of improvement on a weekly basis, he’s playing more like a seasoned veteran these days than the first-year player that he is.
“I think by the third or fourth game, you just kind of start to understand what’s going on and understand the defense more and more, and what my responsibility is and where I’m supposed to be,” Smith said. “It’s getting easier now, and I’m feeling good out there.”
Watching Smith, wearing jersey No. 35, it’s hard not to think back to some of the revered Trojans linebackers of the past who donned that number, defensive stalwarts such as Jeff Kopp, Scott Ross, Rex Moore and Riki Ellison, the latter of whom went by Riki Gray during his days at USC. When Smith started the Trojans’ season-opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 5, in fact, he became the first true freshman inside linebacker to do so since one of those members of the No. 35 club did it back in 1978: Ellison.
Originally given the number by recently fired head coach Steve Sarkisian, Smith wasn’t aware of the history behind it at the time, but he is now.
“Now I realize that it’s just an honor to wear this number,” Smith said. “Hopefully I can add my name to that list some day, but it’s just really cool to be able to say that I wear No. 35 with the rest of the guys that have played here.”
In a tumultuous season that has included the highly publicized departure of Sarkisian as well as three losses -- one of which came to rival Notre Dame last Saturday -- Smith’s performance has been one of the few bright spots for the Trojans on defense in 2015.
But after a productive week at practice, Smith sees reason for optimism as long as the defense can continue to build off of what they’ve started.
“These two practices have been really physical,” Smith said on Wednesday. “We look like a different defense out there right now, so we’ve just got to keep getting better, really understand the mental side of it, just keep executing our scheme and go out there and just play lights-out.”
But with No. 3 Utah coming to town, led by the nation’s No. 10 rusher in Devontae Booker (130.5 yards per game), Smith and the USC defense face a tall task, to say the least. After having found so much success on the field already, however, and with his confidence at an all-time high as a result, it’s a challenge that Smith is more excited about than anything.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to go against a guy like that,” Smith said of Booker. “Some of the things that he’s done, it’s pretty amazing, really. We’ve got to stay physical and tackle as well as possible. It’ll be a test, and I look forward to it.”