Football Defensive Player of the Year: James Wood's Zach Smith

zs2In high school football, it’s rare for a player to receive major postseason accolades when his team has a losing record and fails to make the playoffs.
When the regional meetings come around to select the teams, it's opposing coaching staffs that have to make the case for that player, often when those coaches may have one of their own vying for the same position.
That’s why it's rare.
But James Wood linebacker Zach Smith proved this season that he is no ordinary football player. The Colonels’ junior racked up nearly 14 tackles per game and there were stretches where it seemed like the stadium announcers where calling his name on nearly every defensive stop.
Smith’s stellar play rose above a rough season for the Colonels and he is The Winchester Star’s choice for Defensive Player of the Year.
Despite the gaudy numbers of 139 tackles (105 solos and 29 for losses), Smith admits that getting the news that he was a First Team All-Region 4C selection was a bit of a surprise, especially after a 2-8 season for the Colonels.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be First Team All-Region,” said Smith. “I didn’t think so, but I was super thrilled.”
“I know how those go and we’ve been to them before,” former James Wood coach Ryan Morgan said. “A lot of times it seems like Loudoun County holds a lot of power when we get to those All-Region meetings. It’s nice that they recognized this player. They have a lot of talent over there and successful programs, but I think that teams in our district realized that when you are scouting James Wood that No. 23 pops off the screen when you are watching film.”
Maybe the reason Smith left an impression on all of the Northwestern District coaches was because he was so consistent during the season. His two “worst” games statistically came when he had nine tackles. In every other contest, Smith had at least 12 tackles and had 15 or more tackles in half of the Colonels’ 10 games.
In addition to racking up big tackle numbers, Smith forced four fumbles and recovered three, had 5.5 sacks and picked off a pass.
He was instrumental in the Colonels’ two wins. In a 28-21 triumph against Fauquier, Smith had 18 tackles (7 for losses), forced two fumbles and recovered two. In a 22-6 victory over North Hagerstown (Md.), he racked up 15 tackles (6 for losses) and 2.5 sacks.
And his big numbers did not only come against the weaker of the Colonels’ opponents. Against Class 4 state runner-up Kettle Run, Smith notched a season-high 19 tackles (4 for losses) and forced a fumble.
They were some pretty big statistics for someone who played on the offensive and defensive lines in middle school and really only had one season at varsity linebacker prior to this fall.
But his stellar play wasn't shocking for the Colonels.
“To be honest with you, it didn’t surprise me,” Morgan said. “We’ve kind of been expecting this. He was a very good player in middle school. He was one of those guys you hear stories about when he was coming up, about this kid being a dominant player. We’ve only had a few of those kids where the stories precede the players.”
Smith certainly had a very good sophomore campaign (117 tackles), but he set some big goals for himself this fall: 150 tackles, 15 tackles for losses and 7 sacks. He just missed on two of those and nearly doubled the tackles for losses goal.
What made the big difference?
“I gained weight,” Smith said. “Last year I was around 180 or 185 and this year I was right at 210. I think having that extra 20 or 30 pounds helped on finishing tackles, making bigger hits and not letting go.”
Smith said he enjoys lifting weights and often does so with his father Jacob, a former Warren County High player, and his sister Bailey, who played multiple sports for the Colonels.
The added strength has paid off in multiple ways.
When Smith latches onto a ballcarrier, forget yards after contact. “I felt like if I got hold of a player that they were probably going down on the ground,” Smith said.
“He was always a solid tackler,” Morgan said. “But this year, we knew if he got his hands on a ballcarrier that he was going down. There was not a whole of missed tackles or extra yardage on plays he was involved in.”
And Smith’s strength coupled with his speed (he recently won the 300 meters at an Igloo meet), makes him tougher to block.
Smith believe his toughness, along with speed, strength and vision is what helps him excel at his position.
“You have to be fast to the ball obviously, but you have to get off guys who weigh 300 pounds who are benching 300 as well,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to fight with them and be strong and fast at the same time.
“You kind of have to shock them,” he added. “You can’t let them think they are going to bully you. You’ve got to hit them just as hard if not harder. And then if they are really, really big, you have to kill them with speed.”
And Smith has improved his speed in another area — making reads and taking swift action.
“If you hesitate, that’s another 10 yards their offense is going to get,” Smith explained. “If you go for it right then, you’re going to make a play at the line of scrimmage or for a two-yard gain. If you hesitate, it’s going to be a bigger play for them.”
“I think his reads got better,” Morgan said of the difference in Smith this fall. “A lot of times when he was a sophomore, he was headed in the wrong direction. His eyes would be in the backfield and he’d be reading the running backs rather than his linemen. Guards would pull one way and he’d be going with the running back the other way and you could get him with misdirection.
“He still made a ton of tackles because he’s fast enough to make up for a couple of missteps. It’s the difference between making the tackle five yards downfield or a tackle at the line of scrimmage or a yard behind. I think that’s one of the big reasons why his tackles behind the line increased this year, along with the fact that we blitzed him quite a bit.”
Blitzing Smith became a necessity since the Colonels didn’t have the kind of pass rush they were able to muster in recent seasons. Smith led the team in sacks and wreaking havoc.
“There are times where he’s in the backfield screwing things up where the quarterback has to throw the ball early,” Morgan said. “There are things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet.”
Another one of those things is desire.
“You get some guys who talk like they are competitive and they don’t necessarily act like it or practice like it,” Morgan said. “They don’t carry through in a game for four quarters. He’s one of those guys who talks the talk and walks the walk as far as the competitiveness and confidence. He works extremely hard in practice. He’s not the fastest player around, but you can tell he’s giving 100 percent effort where some kids start to lag off.”
Whether he’s piling up stats or tackles, Smith said the effort is the one thing he takes pride in contributing.
“After games, I drive home and just everything hurts,” he said. “I get home, eat dinner and go to bed just immediately. I’m drained.”
But there’s no substitute for making a big hit or a big play.
“Once our defense — that meaning anybody and not just me — makes a big play, everybody starts getting energized and it makes me want to do better, get there faster and get into the backfield,” Smith said.
Smith hopes to get those feelings on Saturdays as well, but knows he has one big obstacle to face — his height. At 5-foot-10, he’s considered by many at the next level to be too short to play linebacker. He looks to former NFL players London Fletcher (5-10) and Zach Thomas (5-11) as inspirations.
“It’s definitely a thought that goes around in my head, ‘Is 5-10 too short for this school or this coach?,’” Smith said. “I obviously want to play college football. I would love to get into a good school. My height does affect me, but it is what it is. Wherever I go, I will do my best.”
“If you're going to be a linebacker at these Division II schools, they are looking for guys who are 6-foot or above.” Morgan said. “I think he could go into a D-III program and be just a star because of his strength and speed and he’s only going to get better. The more experience he gets at linebacker the quicker his reads are going to be. I think he’s probably going to be a Division III football player, but I’m hoping a Division II team will give him a chance. … He can play at that level if they give him a chance.”
To some coaches who are familiar with Smith, he made the right impression this fall. It’s why he garnered honors and will look to excel again for the Colonels next season.
“I hope that stands out to other coaches and other colleges and that is says something about me,” Smith said of the accolades.
His former coach said having Smith on the roster makes a difference.
“He works harder than virtually everybody else,” Morgan said. “He’s also a great leader, gets good grades, is never in trouble and does the right thing. You really only have to tell him things once before he understands. If you had a team full of those guys, you’d be a really happy coach.”
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