For the first four games of his sophomore season in 2013, James Smith was a cornerback for the Mallard Creek High football team. The Mavericks had a senior starting quarterback, Emiere Scaife, and the plan was to let Smith learn and get some spot minutes and take over in 2014.
Scaife, however, fractured his ankle in the fourth game last year, a 59-0 win over West Charlotte, and Smith suddenly found himself as the then-15-year-old quarterback of North Carolina’s top team. Scaife, now at Georgia State, didn’t play the remainder of his senior year. That left Smith as the permanent starter. And he guided Mallard Creek to its first state championship, throwing for 180 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-21 win over Wake Forest last December. Smith was named his team’s most valuable offensive player.
This season, Smith has improved his career record to 18-1 while leading the Mavericks (6-1, 3-0 MECKA 8), ranked No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll, into a big game Friday night against rival Vance (6-1, 3-0), which is ranked No. 9.
“James has been a leader since he took over a year ago,” Mavericks coach Mike Palmieri said. “He fits the role of what you want in a quarterback as far as not getting too high or not getting too low. He plays hard and the kids around him, they love to play for him. More importantly, the way he carries himself off the field makes him super special.”
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In seven games this season, Smith has completed 64 percent of his passes (107-of-166). He’s thrown for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns. And he’s rushed for 416 yards on 53 carries, scoring 10 touchdowns. Smith’s play has impressed Vance coach Aaron Brand, who was Smith’s offensive coordinator at Mallard Creek last season. Brand left for Vance last summer.
“First of all,” Brand said, “he’s a great kid. He lacked a little bit in accuracy when we started with him and we had some doubts, but he’s a young kid who’s won a state championship and he was very instrumental in what we were trying to do. And one thing that separates him is he’s tough as nails. He’s very confident. I enjoyed coaching him and watching him progress this year. He’s turned into a tremendous player. It’s scary he’s got another year.”
Smith said it wasn’t easy jumping in as the quarterback of a nationally-ranked team last season, but the experience has made him a better player. When Scaife came limping off the field last season, Smith admitted he was nervous.
“Of course I was,” he said. “But what went through my mind was I had to make plays and become more of a leader,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Now it’s my team and I’ve got to show everyone what I can do. There can be no drop off.’ ”
Last season, Mallard Creek fielded the best team in school history and one of the best in Mecklenburg County history, too. In seven of its final eight games last season, including five playoff wins, Mallard Creek scored 49 or more points. In the state quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games, the Mavericks scored at least 56 points.
Smith’s job was simple. He was there to manage a very talented team.
“We just felt we put him as the game manager,” Palmieri said. “We were so deep and so talented at every position, we didn’t have to put too much on him right away. It was really just hand the ball off, throw a play-action pass, play great defense and special teams. We knew he wouldn’t be loose with the football and cost us games.”
This season, Smith’s role has changed. New offensive coordinator Joe Cox has him more of a focal point for a team that graduated 16 of 22 starters. And Smith has responded. He led them to a championship at the Carolina Panthers 7-on-7 competition over the summer and a national runner-up finish at the NFL’s national 7-on-7 tournament in Indianapolis. In several of the games at both tournaments, the Mavericks trailed early and Smith brought them back late.
“That built up a lot of confidence in the players and coaches around (Smith),” Palmieri said. “We knew not only could he play football, he can lead us.”
That leadership showed up again last week.
The Mavericks played poorly in the first half against a pumped-up Hough team. Hough had never beaten Mallard Creek and had the Mavericks down 27-0 at halftime as the Huskies fans screamed and yelled, sensing a major upset. Things got worse for Smith and the Mavericks in the third quarter as Hough extended the lead to 30-0.
Finally, near the middle of the 3rd quarter, as he was about to lead the offense onto the field again, Smith stopped by his head coach with a message.
“He came up to me with 7 minutes left and said, ‘Coach, we got this game,’ ” Palmieri said. “I looked at him kind of crazy.”
Smith slowly led the Mavericks back. He ran for the Mavericks first score on the next drive, a 1-yard plunge. After teammate Cam Stover scored from 5 yards out, Smith threw a 48-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Kyle Horton. After he ran for a two-point conversion, Smith had helped get his team to within eight, at 30-22.
Another 1-yard run – and another 2-point conversion run – from Smith tied the game at 30. And finally, with 45.7 seconds left, Smith’s 1-yard run gave Mallard Creek an improbable win.
“He had a couple opportunities to make big throws and he did and it ignited our football team,” Palmieri said. “And once we got rolling, it was him making plays with some of our other guys on offense and our defense making stops. But he led the way. And that’s what having a leader like him means. He doesn’t panic. A lot of kids get into that position and panic. We kept our composure and we knew we were going to put the ball in his hands.”
Smith said that type of win can have a long-lasting effect on his team’s season.
“It makes us know we can do anything,” Smith said. “I want to go back to the state championship. I think we can do it again as long as we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves. Honestly, I think we’ll be fine.”