By Billy Liggett
Campbell University Publications
Reprinted With Permission
BUIES CREEK, N.C. -- He was a standout high school quarterback in Texas who regularly played before crowds that would outdraw a typical Saturday at Barker-Lane Stadium. At Southern Methodist University, he was part of two bowl seasons, the first two in over 25 years for the once-elite football program.
To say Braden Smith expected to wind up in Buies Creek in his third year of eligibility would be a misstatement. But for Smith, who was recently named the Camel's starting quarterback heading into its opener at Old Dominion on Sept. 3, there are few places more appealing this fall.
"Campbell was just the right fit," said the Rockwall, Texas, native who as a senior in high school threw for 2,880 yards and 26 touchdowns. "It's just exciting … playing quarterback is something I've wanted to do for a long time. I'm happy that I'm getting that chance."
If it sounds like Smith is itching to get back under center, it's because he is. He hasn't been a starting signal caller since his senior year of high school in 2007.
While playing for former NFL head coach June Jones at SMU, the 6-foot, 200-pound Smith was moved to defense after his redshirt freshman year so he could get more playing time. As the backup quarterback in 2009, he threw 5 passes for the Mustangs, completing 2 for 19 yards. He also ran for 86 yards and scored a touchdown in a year that saw the 8-5 Mustangs would go on to beat Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl, 45-10.
In 2010, he played all 13 games as a backup linebacker and holder for field goals.
Despite the setback, Smith said his decision to leave SMU and come to Campbell had less to do with playing time and more to do with academics. Smith will pursue his Master's degree in education at Campbell, and while doing so, he will play out his two years of eligibility on the gridiron.
"I really wanted to start my Master's on time, and while searching for schools, I also kept my eyes and ears open for somewhere I'd have a chance to compete to play quarterback, too," Smith said. "I looked at a few Div. III schools like Austin College (Sherman, Texas) and Hardin-Simmons, but for whatever reason, the Lord shut those doors and led me here."
And so far, Smith sees Campbell as a blessing.
The son of Rockwall High School head football coach Scott Smith, Braden Smith said he too wants to pursue a career in coaching either at the high school or college level after graduate school.
By the time he gets there, he will have had experience under two very different coaches in SMU's Jones and Campbell's Dale Steele, who coached with Scott Smith during a stint at Baylor University. For one, Jones is known for his elaborate passing attacks and spread offense, while Steele's squads have been known for their smashmouth, run-first offenses. Beyond that, their styles are completely different, too, according to Smith. "Neither of them do it the 'right way' or the 'wrong way,' but they're definitely different," he said. "And that's been the biggest culture shock for me," much more than moving from Dallas to Buies Creek.
"June Jones was more relaxed and laid back as a coach. He didn't use a whistle during practice, and I think we practiced in full pads a total of five times in my three years," Smith said. "But here … shoot, it's pads, it's hitting, and it's tough. But it's been great to see how both coaches work."
Despite Steele's relationship with the Smith family, Braden Smith said he wasn't promised anything upon arriving at Campbell, and it took up to two weeks before the start of the season for Steele to name him his starter at quarterback. Smith competed over the summer with sophomore Dakota Wolf, and according to Steele, the decision wasn't easy.
"He and Dakota are both fine quarterbacks," he said. "The margin between the two was minimal. We're blessed to have two solid quarterbacks … that's not something we've had before."
Steele said Smith's experience put him over the top.
"He's very mature, a good leader, and he's seen a lot of things as a player and as a quarterback in Conference USA that will help him here," Steele said. "That experience … that ability to anticipate and to understand the game … that's what set him apart. He's an older player, and he's played in a big setting before."
Smith will get his first chance to show that experience when Campbell travels to Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 3, for its opener against Old Dominion. The Camels will play their first game in Buies Creek on Sept. 10 against Div. III Apprentice.