FOOTBALL SENIOR FEATURE: COLE SMITH

  • October 20, 2021

Senior Feature: Cole Smith
By Craig Sachson, PrincetonTigersFootball.com

Cole Smith waited longer than he could have imagined for the opportunity coming this Saturday.

He was one of the best players at Christian Academy of Knoxville, a three-time all-state quarterback who set a Tennessee state record with 11,032 career passing yards. He likely understood that he might not play immediately, but surely his time would come soon enough. Really, Smith was not much different than any other college football player.

Unlike most positions, though, there isn’t a deep rotation that will allow for quicker playing time. Starting quarterbacks don’t usually swap out every third series. Smith sat behind All-Americas, record-breakers and Ivy League champions. He waited through the worst global pandemic in a century. But he never stopped working, never stopped believing, and he earned an opportunity to play in a nationally ranked showdown between two of the most historic rivals in college football.

The Princeton-Harvard series dates back to 1877, and within the last decade, the teams have played some of the most important and memorable games in that series. Two of them ended with unforgettable touchdown passes from 2013 Ivy League Player of the Year, Princeton’s Quinn Epperly.

If Princeton gets the one coming this Saturday on Powers Field, Epperly can claim a third victory over the Crimson.

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Smith, the second oldest of Tom and Beverly Smith’s four children, got a sense in middle school that he could potentially play football beyond high school. You can assume that “Rocky Top” was the song he heard most in those dreams.

“I lived about 10 minutes from the University of Tennessee, and we were big Volunteer fans growing up,” Smith said. “I dreamed of playing in Neyland Stadium. But then the recruiting process starts, and you hear coaches stay ‘we’ll keep in touch.’ I realized the 6-4, 215-pound guys are the ones going to the Power Five schools.”

He was putting up massive numbers at Christian Academy, similar to those put up by another all-time great from that program, Epperly. Head coach Rusty Bradley connected the two so that Epperly could share how strong Ivy League and Princeton football was, and what the experience was like for him. It may not have been the shade of orange Smith expected at first, but he soon realized it was the right program for him.

It just wasn’t the time for him to play.

Smith arrived on campus one year removed from the 2016 Ivy League title, and he watched Chad Kanoff break Ivy League passing records during his freshman season. As a sophomore, he had a front-row seat for the perfect 2018 campaign, engineered by All-America quarterback John Lovett.

“It’s a shock to the system,” Smith recalls of his early days on campus. “I was struggling with classes. We have a lot of guys here who were the best players on their high school teams, and coaches are going to play the best 11. I played every snap possible starting my sophomore year of high school, and now I’m not playing at all.”

Everybody wants to play, but a true team player can learn from the sideline as well.

“It was a good learning experience, and it was humbling,” Smith said. “I learned a lot from signaling in the offense with Zach Keller in 2018. If you buy into the whole team aspect, you feel like you are part of it. It’s all about what can you do to help the team.”

Buying into the team aspect meant even more when Smith wasn’t sure he would ever play on the team again.

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Smith had been an understudy for a Princeton team that went 18-2 between 2018-2019, and he was ready to carry the torch into a new decade. He took the first-team reps during the first spring practice of 2020, and he believed it was his time to lead the Princeton offense.

There wouldn’t be a second spring practice.

“I’ve had a relatively easy life, so COVID, in a football sense, was a pretty low spot,” Smith said. “I had a mindset going into the spring that it was my spot to lose. I just felt like this was now or never.”

For a while, it felt like it could be never. Smith — as did many of his Princeton teammates – took a gap year to retain eligibility, and then he moved with several other Tigers over the summer to the Princeton area to train wherever and whenever they could.

“We had to act like the [2021] season was going to happen, even if we weren’t sure,” he said.

Spoiler alert: The season happened. Smith earned the trust and belief of his teammates through his daily work. They sent him texts of support throughout the summer, and they voted him a co-captain during the preseason. When he took the field at Lehigh for the 2021 season opener, it would have been understandable if he was overly emotional, or at least a bit jumpy.

Instead, he was calm. Quarterbacks coach Mark Rosenbaum told him that if he was prepared, everything would take care of itself. Smith, who never let the ‘backup’ designation keep him from preparing, understood what he meant that day. He was cool, calm, and collected 412 passing yards and three touchdowns in the first of five straight wins to open the season.

None of it surprised head coach Bob Surace.

“Cole has so many exceptional qualities of a quarterback, including accuracy, arm strength, and athleticism,” said Surace, who has coached three quarterbacks to Ivy League Player of the Year honors. “However, I am so impressed with his leadership, decision-making, poise and command of the offense. His growth and development as a player have been inspiring to watch.”

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing this season, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Playing quarterback at a high level requires resilience, and Smith showed that by following a late interception at Monmouth with a drive for the game-winning field goal. He didn’t need as much resilience last weekend, as he recorded twice as many touchdown passes (four) as incompletions (two) while throwing for 476 yards, the second-most in program history, in a win over Brown.

Now he faces a Top-20 opponent in Harvard, one of three unbeatens in the Ivy League (joining Princeton and Dartmouth). Smith would love nothing more than to mirror Epperly — who will play for the Fehervar Enthroners of Hungary during the 2022 season — and cap a dramatic win over the Crimson with a late touchdown pass. But he’ll take a 3-0 win, or another four-touchdown ground effort by Collin Eaddy.

For the season, Smith has more than 1,500 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. He is completing 70% of his passes, and he has as many rushing touchdowns (two) as interceptions. He is on pace to have the third-highest single-season passing total and second-highest completion rate in program history. He is putting up legendary numbers, ones that put him in rare company at Princeton, and ones that came from quarterbacks with far more experience.

Honestly, he couldn’t care less. He’s here to play, to lead, and to win.

After such a long wait, he’s succeeding in all three.