All-Empire Small School Football: Fort Bragg’s Smith offensive player of the year

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat Zach Smith, Small School Offensive Player of the Year

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
Zach Smith, Small School Offensive Player of the Year

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Throughout the 2012 offseason, three of Fort Bragg’s team captains — Zach Smith, Tyler Ashby and Eric Herrejon — challenged one another to lift weights five days a week. Rarely did they take a day off. Once the season started, they would run stadium stairs after practice along with other teammates, or run on the beach along the Mendocino coast.

As it turned out, Smith would need every ounce of the conditioning he gained. He almost never left the field for the Timberwolves. He played outside linebacker in their 3-5 defense, returned kicks, handled the long snapping on punts and, most notably, carried the Fort Bragg offense with his running.

Smith rushed for 1,801 yards and 18 touchdowns and led the Timberwolves to an undefeated record in NCL I play. It was enough to make the junior The Press Democrat’s Small School Offensive Player of the Year.

“St. Helena had a lot of good players, especially the Hoppe kid,” Fort Bragg coach Roy Perkins said, referring to quarterback Richard Hoppe. “St. Vincent had some good receivers and a solid running back. We were pretty one-dimensional. I just think day in and day out, the grind of our league, it’s pretty hard to do what Zach did.”

If the opposing team had a dangerous offensive playmaker, Perkins would usually try to match him up one-on-one with Smith. On special teams, Smith was a dynamic force.

“The kid is gifted with speed and strength, and when he gets in the open field with a punt return, he’s a game changer,” Perkins said. “We played Middletown and they were kicking the ball out of bounds in the second half. St. Helena did the same thing.”

At running back, Smith was virtually unstoppable. Just ask Piedmont, victimized for 250 yards in a first-round North Coast Section Division 4 playoff game, or normally stout Middletown, which gave up three touchdowns to Smith.

Being a featured player in all three phases of the game is no easy task, and Smith wasn’t sure he wanted any part of it. Shortly after Perkins took over the team — just three days before the start of the season — Smith informed the coach that he didn’t want to play defense. He’d rather conserve his energy for running back. Perkins said he’d consider it.

“He came back and told me, ‘We don’t have the depth,’” Smith said. “Our quarterback went both ways. A lot of our defensive players went both ways. I tried to pace myself sometimes and take breathers, but there’s really no room to take a play off.”

Smith admits he was frequently gassed at the end of games, but he never asked out again.

“He’s an extremely humble kid, very hard-working,” Perkins said. “As a coach, he’s about everything you could ever ask for, and he gets everything he’s got out of himself. He’s not very big, but he’s an exceptional kid.”

And the best thing about it, at least for the Timberwolves? Perkins has his star halfback for another season, along with quarterback Tyler Ashby.

They’re definitely the team to beat in the NCL I next fall.

“I’m really excited,” Smith said. “I didn’t expect to do what we did this year.”

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