Star Wood linebacker Smith ready to also make impact at running back

zsWINCHESTER — With the nickname “Dragon,” Zach Smith had built himself quite a reputation well before he ever set foot inside the halls of James Wood High School.
James Wood football coach Ryan Morgan said Frederick County Middle School football coach Jared Neal — the father of the Colonels’ starting quarterback with the same name — would often talk about Smith whenever Morgan would talk to him about future Colonels.
“He put him at nose tackle and just let him go in and destroy the opponent’s backfield,” Morgan said. “When he got up here [to James Wood], I was expecting him to be about 230 [pounds] or so.”
In eighth grade, Smith says he was 5-foot-8 and about 235 pounds. What the Colonels got when Smith was a freshman was a player with 170 pounds on his 5-9 frame.
But while Smith lost about 65 pounds, he didn’t lose any of his ferociousness. He’s been a standout performer from the Colonels from the start, and this year the junior is stronger than ever as he prepares to take on the biggest workload of his varsity career.
As a 185-pound sophomore, Smith ranked second in the area with 117 tackles (10 for loss) with three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception as an inside linebacker and earned All-Class 4 Northwestern District Second Team honors.
It’s possible Smith won’t get quite as many tackles this year, but it won’t be from lack of effort. Now 202 pounds, Smith is expected to be part of three-man rotation at inside linebacker because James Wood plans on having him share time at running back with Blake Corbin.
Smith had just five carries for 20 yards last year with the graduated Wes Brondos receiving the lion’s share of the rushing attempts. Morgan said if Brondos hadn’t played as well as did, Smith probably would have received more carries. James Wood elected to have Brondos focus on offense and Smith concentrate on defense.
Morgan is looking forward to seeing what Smith can do.
“He’s ready to go up against anybody,” Morgan said. “He’s very strong, confident and hard-working. His work ethic is second-to-none on the team. Some kids, they start to slow down, they start to quit. He gives 100 percent effort.
“What we heard about him early on was that he was aggressive and physical and fast. And then when he got here, he was just a smaller version of that.”
It’s Smith’s dedication to lifting weights that helped him lose weight before his freshman year, and what is now helping him add weight in terms of muscle.
Smith started playing football at age 5 as flag football player, and tackle football at age 8. His father Jacob played football as a running back and outside linebacker for Warren County High School.
Zach Smith did not play running back and linebacker until he got to James Wood, though. Before that, he was always an offensive and defensive linemen.
Jacob is the one who got him into lifting weights in middle school, and Smith’s sessions with him helped make him a lot leaner between his eighth-grade season in 2019 and his high school debut, which didn’t take place until April of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would wake up very early and lift, and I would eat much healthier than I did when I was younger,” said Smith, who was working out every day of the week, three-to-four hours a day in between those two football seasons. “On my own I wanted to lift and then when I was with my dad we would want to lift and play basketball and play football. That just ended up burning more and more weight off.
“I kind of did mean to lose the weight, but it wasn’t that hard of a process because it was fun while doing it. I enjoyed doing the stuff to lose the weight.”
All that lifting helped Smith become a linebacker at James Wood as a freshman, the position he always wanted to play. The Colonels only played two of their four scheduled games because of a COVID-19 outbreak, but Smith made a total of 11 tackles in those two games.
“You get to hit a lot,” said Smith when asked what he likes about playing linebacker.
As a result, Smith was confident he could perform well as a sophomore, and he certainly did.
“He’s willing to play downhill,” Morgan said. “He’s willing to meet fullbacks or tight ends or pulling guards in the hole. He’s got good leverage. He’s not the tallest guy, so he can use his leverage to get underneath blockers. He could probably be a good wrestler, too, because he can get underneath people and make tackles.”
Though Smith was consistent throughout the year, one of his most notable plays came in James Wood’s third game of the year against Brentsville on Sept. 17. With the Colonels up 14-7 and the Tigers embarking on a nine-play, 46-yard drive late in the first half, Smith cut in front of a receiver on a slant pass to the right and returned it 44 yards to Brentsville’s 32.
James Wood wound up converting that interception into a TD and scored two TDs overall in the last 1:16 of the second quarter to go into halftime with a 28-7 lead. The Colonels wound up winning the game 37-15.
Smith moved well on that interception, and he continued to show off his speed during the spring track season. It’s not often you see someone Smith’s size running in sprint events, but he ran well with season-bests of 11.92 seconds for the 100 meters and 24.08 for the 200. Smith qualified for the Region 4C meet in the 200.
Smith said he definitely wants to be faster this year than he was last year. And in track, he enjoyed the challenge of running against lighter athletes.
“I’m not quite Stephen Daley,” said Smith, referencing the 6-2, 240-pound Handley All-State sprinter who will play football for NCAA Division I Kent State University this year. “But it was cool to run against the littler guys.”
Morgan said the Colonels definitely like the way Smith moves.
“Probably because he’s built low to the ground, he can change direction really well,” Morgan said. “With his speed, he can chase quarterbacks down, or running backs in the backfield. If you send him on a blitz, and a running back changes direction, with a lot of running backs, they’re left in the dust.
“If he doesn’t catch them, he can at least keep pressure on them. I know he did that a little bit against Handley last year when he got in the backfield against their quarterback [Davion Butler. Butler] maybe didn’t get sacked, but he still had to get rid the ball quicker than a lot of inside linebackers would probably force him to do.”
As far as running back, Morgan figures Smith is going to be tough for defenses to handle, particularly as the game goes on. Smith said he’s more comfortable with the idea of a large role at running back this year than he would have been last year.
“Hopefully, he can led sort of smash-mouth attitude to our offense,” Morgan said. “He’s picking up the footwork and the reads. I think he’s going to do a good job.”
And Smith continues to impress in the weight room. His max efforts are 315 pounds for the bench press (Smith benched 185 in eighth grade), 435 pounds for the squat and 460 pounds for the deadlift.
“When he got 300, he was stuck on getting it for a couple of reps,” Morgan said. “Most kids, once they try a weight that they get stuck at, they might try it again after a couple-minute break, but they’ve already burned themselves out.
“He tried it three times and didn’t get it up, and I’m like, ‘Man, why are we doing it a fourth time?’ But he’s just got that mind-set that whatever he wants to do is going to get accomplished no matter what. He wanted to get 300, and he got 300 so he could match [lineman] Jack Thompson. He didn’t want Jack Thompson to beat him out for the bench press. Somebody might [beat Smith], but he’s not going to let it happen without a fight.”
Because of how hard Smith works, he commands plenty of respect. Smith went to an Old Dominion University prospect camp this summer and also went to camps at Virginia Tech, William & Mary and Shepherd.
“There’s not a single kid on this team that can say, ‘I work harder than him,’” Morgan said. “When he has something to say, the kids listen, because he lives it. He doesn’t just say it.”
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