St. Mary’s wide receiver Casey Smith knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
Ever since the pandemic began, recruiting has become tougher on high school players looking to find a home with college programs. Some top programs elect to fill their last roster spots through the transfer portal, rather than additional recruits. Fewer opportunities remain, despite the fact that varsity coaches and players are working ever harder to put their names out there.
But on the first day of the traditional signing period for high school football players, Smith is still one of the lucky ones. Wednesday, Smith put pen to paper in his commitment to play football at the Naval Academy. He was one of two Saints to making commitments Wednesday as second team All-County receiver Wyatt Cotton committed to Division III Williams College.
Meanwhile at Crofton, outside linebacker Lotanna Onyekaba signed with Division I Football Championship Subdivision school, Stonehill College on Wednesday. At North County, Elijah McKenzie signed with Division I FCS Morgan State and Shiloh Smith committed to Division III Bridgewater University. On Thursday, four players signed at Annapolis Area Christian School. Devin Ahmed will go on to play at Division III Widener; Andrew Fatusin will go on to Division II East Stroudsburg; Carius McClain will play for Division I FCS Davidson College; and Zephaniah Wade will go on to Division II Millersville.
Smith grew up in a lacrosse household; his father played for University of North Carolina. Smith considered continuing his spring sport in college. That is until St. Mary’s football coach Jason Budroni told him that he believed Smith could play football at the next level.
“It felt amazing,” Smith said. “I wasn’t really sure how the whole football recruiting worked; I don’t really have anyone who played football in college.”
His coach’s validation cemented Smith’s path towards wanting to play college football. But wanting and succeeding are increasingly different matters. Some weeks, Smith received a new flush of texts from interested coaches. Others, his messages were desert-dry.
The odds were definitely stacked against Smith, Budroni said. Smith suffered a slew of injuries this past year, from a hamstring issue that kept from attending earlier camps to a broken collarbone in 7-on-7s that took him out of even more camps, as well as the first few weeks of the season. When Smith returned, taking a few plays in St. Mary’s overtime comeback against Loyola Blakefield on Sept. 17, a hit aggravated a shoulder issue and forced him to play hurt the rest of the season.
“It’s definitely been a slow process. Frustrating at points,” Smith said with a laugh.
Smith never thought about Navy as a possibility until assistant coach Ashley Ingram reached out. Once the team painted him a future four years emphasizing brotherhood, Smith was enthralled. It’s all he wanted to do now, he said.
Budroni believes Navy’s loss of players such as slotback Maquel Haywood to the transfer portal helped Smith find his entry in this case. But still, the coach felt immense relief when he got the final phone call. For the past few months, Ingram kept contact with Smith, assuring him the Midshipmen were approaching an offer for him. When it happened, excitement rushed through Smith. He didn’t hesitate a moment.
“I just took it,” Smith said.
The environment Navy described to Smith reminded him of the one he knew. St. Mary’s smaller size created a closer, familial bond to his community and teammates. He liked the idea of meeting another lifelong family again.
Smith is joining a few other Saints who are a part of the academy. Jamie Romo just completed his senior season with the team, while his younger brother Matt will start next fall after spending a year at prep school. Off the field, Smith will be joined by a current football and lacrosse teammate in Nick Golini, who signed with Navy men’s lacrosse last fall. On the flip side, 2022 Saints graduate Jack Bousum signed with Army last year and will meet his former schoolmates on the field come December.
But it isn’t just the general atmosphere Smith sees himself meshing with at the Naval Academy. His entire spirit is exactly the kind the Mids seek out.
“He’s a big kid. He’s 6-5, 195, three-sport athlete. But I think the potential, when he can focus on football, they think he’ll be a real player for them down the line,” Budroni said. “Casey’s a great kid. He works hard. ... There’s nothing not to like about Casey.”
Budroni feels the same for Cotton, another two-sport star at St. Mary’s. Early last season, Cotton, who began his career as South River before transferring as a sophomore, visited Williams College, a school with a high-academic setting and a low acceptance rate.
The Saints coach told Cotton, who accumulated more than 1,000 all-purpose yards this past season, that he’d be happy to spread his name around Ivy League schools. With Cotton’s speed and size, Budroni said, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior could easily play for a larger school.
But Cotton’s heart was sold.
Now, Budroni looks forward to see how getting to commit to football full-time will change both of his players. Cotton never had the time to lift all year-round for football. When he does, the New England Small College Athletic Conference will have to watch out.
“He’s tough to tackle as it is. With his speed, he has a gift. He just gets out of tackles. He just does. Now as a bigger stronger version, I can’t imagine it,” Budroni said. “He’ll be a monster.”