DeShawn Smith has a simple explanation for his unprecedented success this season. He repeats it like a mantra, game after game; no matter how many rushing yards he piles up, no matter how many touchdowns he scores.
The Nature Coast senior running back has a deal with his offensive line. They block, he scores. That’s it. “A running back’s nothing without his O-linemen,” Smith said. “Every time I score, I run to them first. … They block, they get it open for me, and then I do the rest. So it’s a 50-50 thing.”
Smith has certainly been the headliner for the Sharks, who will put their 10-0 regular-season record to the test Friday night when they host Zephyrhills in a Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal kicking off at 7:30 p.m. With 2,789 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns, Smith is shattering county records and quite possibly enjoying the finest campaign ever put together in the local ranks. “We definitely live through him and his success,” said senior guard Cass Cole. “It’s amazing watching what he can do in the open field once he gets through the hole,” said fellow guard Jesus Torres.
While Smith goes out of his way to allow his blockers to share in the credit, some folks outside the program have taken notice of the Sharks’ play in the trenches. “That guy’s (Smith) pretty good and their offensive line really makes him go,” said Lecanto head coach Greg Harper after his team lost to Nature Coast last month, with Smith running for 318 yards and scoring five times. “If it wasn’t for those guys up front, he would have a little bit harder time. Their front five is pretty good, so hat’s off to them.”
The offensive line is comprised of Cole and Torres at guard, senior Hunter Rhineberger and junior Nico Devito at tackle, and senior Bradley Navarro at center. The three seniors are all third-year starters, while Devito and the freshman Torres are in their first year starting.
Yes, Smith is an unbelievable talent who’s a home-run threat every time he touches the ball and has an uncanny knack for shaking free of defenders once he hits the second level. Yet consider what happened in the first quarter against Weeki Wachee last month. With Smith sidelined for the entire period due to a violation of team rules, the team ran nearly three whole possessions without him.
The Sharks rushed 15 times in the quarter for 163 yards, averaging 10.9 yards per carry. The first drive ended in a touchdown, the second on an interception deep in opposing territory. On the third possession, Nature Coast advanced to the Weeki Wachee 1-yard line before time expired. Smith scored on the next play to start the second quarter, and proceeded to amass 186 yards on 11 carries and four touchdowns. Nevertheless, the fact the Sharks still moved the ball at will even with other players toting the rock showed just how dominant they are up front.
“I think it’s one, their immersing in the offense for two years now and them being able to fully understand what we’re doing,” said second-year Nature Coast head coach Justin Worden. “And then that makes the second part, it ties into that as they make those adjustments… Last year, I thought we had a really good group, and obviously you got an SEC-caliber kid. You could even say a more talented group, but it was all new and they were still learning the offense. This year we know the offense so we’re able to make those adjustments on the fly.”
That SEC-caliber kid would be tackle Christian Pellage, who signed with South Carolina after completing his prep career with the Sharks. Even with him gone, the line’s performance hasn’t dropped off. “The biggest reason for that is just cause Pellage was here (under the new coaching staff) for one year,” Worden said. “If we’d have had Pellage from the start and he’d have been in our system from the start, he’d have been more familiar with it and then I think it had been a little tougher for us to overcome as a group. Now that they’re kind of in (the system), I think that’s helped make up for the difference in skill.
“It’s a good show of their mentality. They’re fighters, they’re scrappers. You’ve got to be to be a good offensive line. But I think it also shows that they’re buying into not just what we’re doing but what we ask of them as far as watching film on the weekends and preparing themselves week by week for what schemes they’ll face.”
Proving that they could still perform at a high level minus Pellage gave this year’s linemen a collective chip on their shoulders. “I think over the summer we definitely worked harder than we ever have before, just knowing that we didn’t have a three-star recruit out here,” Cole said. “We had to do it ourselves. “We did see what it takes to get to the next level. I think that’s everyone’s ultimate goal, to move on. Just being able to watch him perform kind of sets a standard.”
“It improved us as a team,” said Devito of learning to play without Pellage. More than anyone, Smith has been the beneficiary of that progress. The offensive linemen have had a front-row seat to his numerous highlights and have been able to share in the glory. “We take really good pride (in Smith’s accomplishments),” Rhineberger said. “We don’t get all the praise. We don’t get all the articles written about us. But DeShawn gives us our credit, and Coach gives us our credit when it’s due.”
Smith has gone to great efforts to show his appreciation for the offensive line. “He pushed us a lot during the summer,” Navarro said. “Just to get stronger and faster so during the regular season we’d be good like we are.”
“He’s created a good relationship with us as a group,” Devito said. “We’re all friends.”
“If you’ve got a kid that it’s all about him, you’re not going to get the offensive line blocking for him sometimes,” Worden said. “You can ask any salty offensive line veteran, I guarantee at least once in their life they turned someone loose on a back who was a little too big for their britches. “I think they want to block for him because of how he treats them. I think it goes to show the mentality this group has just outside of football, as well.”
Worden noted that how the line goes, so goes the team. So if Smith and the Sharks are to continue on with this magical run, it’s a safe bet that the five guys at the line of scrimmage will play a major role.
“It’s gone pretty well,” Navarro said. “We’ve got to keep doing our job, execute well. If we do our job, everything will pan out how we want it.”