At first glance, it's probably hard to see Rahshaun Smith and say he's an underdog. He stands 6 feet 3, weighs 230 pounds and has a deep, booming voice. His nickname is Shaq — and it was given to him at age 12.
On the football field, Smith exhibits a rare combination of speed and athleticism that reminds scouts of Jadeveon Clowney and Da'Shawn Hand. Smith's time in the 40-yard dash has been listed anywhere from 4.5 to 4.7 seconds. The defensive lineman has been rated as one of the top prospects for the 2016 recruiting class.
So, yes, it's weird to consider Smith, a rising junior at St. Frances, an underdog, but it's the title he prefers. The letters of colleges will continue to flood his mailbox, he said, if he continues to play as if he hasn't received a single one.
"People always make comparisons and say that I'm one of the best in my class," Smith said. "I just always think, 'I'm not Shaq. I'm just an average Joe trying to get better.'"
The underdog role was fitting this past weekend, where Smith was one of 108 high-school football players who attended the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge at M&T Bank Stadium. He was the only one from the Baltimore metropolitan area to attend, and was one of just 26 listed underclassmen.
These Rivals camps are held in high regard by college coaches. Smith said he was humbled when he received his invitation. But he didn't get to this point in his football career without the help of a strong supporting cast.
Smith has always been huge. He was the tallest kid in his each of elementary and middle school classes. For a while, in his early teenage years, his age matched his shoe size. He outgrew clothes every couple of months.
In middle school, Smith was playing football, but hadn't really dedicated himself yet. He said he was hanging around with the wrong crowd then, one that dealt with gang-related issues. Fighting took place on occasion. He said he was suspended from riding the bus one time.
The trouble worried his mother, Shenika Brown, who raised Smith mostly on her own.
"To raise a young man like me isn't easy, and she's done that very well," Smith said. "The relationship we have now is indescribable."
In seventh grade, Smith was introduced to Cory Robinson, an assistant football coach at Calvert Hall and co-founder of Next Level Nation, a company that promotes character, discipline and integrity in youth athletics.
Robinson became like a father figure to Smith, helping him stay out of mischief in school while also encouraging the development of his football skills.
"He was kind of a gentle giant, a big kid with a big heart. His mom did a great job," Robinson said. "Our relationship just kind of developed over the years. Now he's a part of my family, and I'm a part of his.
"As an athlete, he had potential. But he needed to work and he needed to focus. Now he's committed himself to really getting better."
With the help of Next Level Nation, Smith began to flourish athletically. The program itself has developed more than 20 current and potential Division I football players, including South Carolina's Damiere Byrd and Penn State's Donovan Smith.
Robinson said Rahshaun Smith constantly puts in the work and has progressed rapidly. The two set goals together, and each time Smith reaches one, he comes up with two or three more.
One of those goals was to receive a college offer before he reached high school. Smith received three: from Boston College, Youngstown State and Maryland.
"To my knowledge, he has to be the first eighth-grader in the state of Maryland, that I've ever seen, to receive not only one, but multiple scholarship offers [from Bowl Championship Series programs]," Robinson said.
With that success came pressure. Smith hadn't played a down of high school football at Calvert Hall yet was being touted as a potential five-star recruit.
"I generally had a good feeling about him," said Donald Davis, Calvert Hall's football coach. "You know, he started varsity as a freshman, and you could see that he was nervous before his first game, and he fought through that."
In that game, he recorded three sacks, forced a fumble and recovered another for a touchdown. And that was just the beginning.
After a tremendous freshman campaign — he helped Calvert Hall to a 9-3 record in 2012 — Smith took a trip to San Antonio for the U.S. Army National Combine, where he played well against some of the nation's most sought-after offensive linemen.
The letters and offers began to pile up throughout his sophomore season, after which he and his mom moved and agreed it would be better to attend St. Frances. Smith's heard from Florida State and Ohio State and even Notre Dame, among other notable schools. He takes all the letters he gets from schools and puts them in a shoebox that he keeps in his closet.
There's a sign of maturity there. Robinson and Davis said Smith knows what his talents are becoming and that he'd rather keep trying to prove himself even if his highlight tape speaks volumes about his ability.
"It makes him who he is," said Mike Farrell, Rivals director of national recruiting. "It's an internal drive, but the people around him have done a great job pushing him to get where he's at today."
Leading up to this weekend, Smith spent his Saturdays with another one of his coaches, Riddick Parker. They worked on Smith's explosiveness, how to effectively use his hands off the whistle and a few shifty moves to help him maneuver past offensive linemen.
He put one of those moves on display Saturday afternoon. During one-on-one drills, Smith was paired up with Greg Little (Texas), a potential five-star offensive lineman for the 2016 recruiting class.
Little lined up in preparation for a pass rush. The song "I Won" by Future and Kanye West blared through the speakers at M&T Bank Stadium. Smith began bobbing his head and mouthing the lyrics. Then he eased into his three-point stance.
The coaches signaled for the drill to begin. Smith stepped left out of his stance, knocking Little off balance, and then exploded to the right. He reached the quarterback essentially untouched. Coaches and fans in attendance went nuts.
Smith walked back to the line and smiled. The underdog had prevailed again.
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