Sunday, August 26, 2018

Lift Off: Matt Smith Ready For The Final Act of His Storied Rockets Career

Needham's Matt Smith has asserted himself as one of the top Division 1 prospects.
By Matt Feld (@Mattyfeld612)

Needham, Mass. – It’s a hot Wednesday afternoon, and Needham is fresh off a three-hour practice as part of its training camp.

The Rockets participate in their local media day, partaking in tens of videos and hundreds of photographs. As the session ends, Matt Smith heads into the locker room to trade in his Needham practice jersey and pads for a Duke football shirt. It is the truest signal that the star who has become one of the top best play makers in Massachusetts in recent years has met the goals he set for himself early in his career.

“The IVYs offer a prestigious education, but with Duke it was the best of both worlds,” said Smith. “They offer a terrific education, but also the scholarship opportunity to go with it."

For Smith, though, college can wait. He still has one fall left with a Rockets team seemingly poised to shakeup the landscape in Division 1 South.

“We have a legitimate chance to compete for a state championship.”

Participation in collegiate athletics is certainly anything but a novel concept in the Smith family. His mother, Michelle, played volleyball at Dickinson while his father played basketball at a high level.

From a young age though, Smith wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Brendan. Brendan was all about the football field.

“I started playing football in second grade because my older brother was, and I just always followed what he did,” Smith said with a laugh. “I figured if he liked, then I would like it too.”

Smith began as an offensive lineman and fullback but quickly moved over to running back. He fell in love with having the ball in his hands, being the one responsible for being the one making plays all the time.

Running back may have been Smith’s calling card come high school, but a four-inch growth spurt going into eighth grade quickly developed him into a wide receiver.

“When I started to grow I kind of just began turning into a more natural wide receiver,” said Smith. “I was the tall lanky kid throughout the early part of high school.”

He entered sophomore year at 180 pounds bringing on one of the most potent challenges for any high school kid hoping to become built for the next level. In order to compete, he needed to add some extra weight.

“My metabolism was incredibly fast so putting on that weight became a struggle,” recalled Smith. “I had to up my calorie intake by about 3,000 a day through protein powder, meat, carbs. Really anything I could get my hands on.”

The dietary change worked boosting smith to 215 pounds by the start of his junior season. His increased weight turned him into a dual threat. Needham now held the option of using him as a tight end or unleashing his terrific hands and athleticism on the outside.

Potential opportunities to play at prep school came up along the way, but Smith saw fellow basketball teammate Thomas Shaughnessy stay put.

“I saw kids like Thomas stay public and that had a big influence on me,” said Smith. “I knew that if I put the work in, and did the right things, it would all work out.”

Smith’s time on the basketball floor helped as well. He began playing basketball when he was still in elementary school and before falling in love with football was a priority of his. Despite making his football his lifelong passion, Smith is still an integral member of the Needham basketball program and will be a captain for the 2018-19 season. 

Through his play on the hardwood he has discovered skills that translate onto the football field.

“My best aspect in basketball is rebounding so that really helps if you think about rebounding and high-pointing a ball in football its basically the exact same thing,” said Smith. “The jumping technique has helped me a lot.”

With his newfound capabilities Smith had a breakout junior campaign. He reeled in 37 receptions for 702 yards. The Rockets, meanwhile, began to turn people's attention, knocking off Brockton in an overtime thriller in the opening round of the 2017 postseason.

“Historically, A bunch of Needham townies had told me for years how good Brockton was in the past and to actually beat Brockton at home that was very special,” said Smith. “It’s given our returners that experience of what its like to win a playoff game.”

The euphoria of capturing a postseason win for the program barely washed away, the recruiting process for Smith kicked into full gear following the conclusion of the season. He spent hours during the winter on the phone and in one-on-one meetings at school with college coaches.

Dartmouth offered on April 28th, and within six weeks Smith had received nearly a dozen offers.

He was enamored with the thought of going to play for an IVY League program but had decided prior to his junior year that was he determined to go to college for free. When Duke called it allowed Smith to not only play at a well-respected program but fulfill that predetermined dream.

"I went down there for just one day and the coaching staff made me feel like I never left home," said Smith. "Despite being just a recruit they had me thinking I had already been playing there for a couple of years."

Now, as Smith enters his senior season, there is a new face manning the sidelines for Needham. Well, to a degree. David Duffy announced his retirement in June after 19-years at the helm, handing over the reigns to Doug Kopsco. Kopsco served for the last seven seasons as the Rockets’ defensive coordinator.

Despite being on the defensive side of the ball for Smith’s first three years as member of the program, Kopsco said his charisma and innate ability have always impressed.

“(Smith) is of course a very strong kid with great talent, but it’s his leadership qualities that have always stood out,” said Kopsco. “He leads not just on the field, but in the locker room. He helps to allow us to turn a theoretical practice into something concrete.”

Kopsco even sees some similarities with a relatively recent Massachusetts football superstar.

“He has some pretty similar qualities to Danny Dalton from Marshfield,” said Kopsco. “He really just has the capability of beating defenses in so many different ways between his athleticism, his size, and his hands.”

Carrying an increased profile with his commitment to Duke, Smith has already noticed the uptick in attention he is getting from opponents. During Needham’s participation in seven-on-seven’s over the summer Smith was often double or even triple covered. It’s something the dynamic tight-end, wide receiver hybrid is still getting accustomed to.

“It’s a new feeling, because my whole entire life there is not a lot of people who have known me on the football scene, so I was being even single covered in games last year,” said Smith. “But now, even in seven-on-sevens I have been double, and triple covered.”

It’s now all about his last fall filling out those Rockets football pads. Smith said his teammates have the first game against Natick circled – its been that way since the Redhawks shutout Needham, 17-0, last fall.

There is a strong sense of optimism surrounding the program with a handful of returning starters on the offensive end including Smith, quarterback Charlie Ogletree, and running back Odari Hibberts.

“We have been talking about revenge versus Natick since we lost to them last year,” said Smith. “We know kids over there and we’ve been talking back and forth. But after that, I don’t see many defenses that are going to be able to slow down how many weapons we have on offense.”

If Needham is to reach the milestone they are aiming for, however, perhaps the key to it all will be whatever impact Smith can provide on the defensive side of the ball.

After three years of primarily focusing on his ability to stretch out the Rockets’ offense, Smith is determined to make an impact as a defensive end.

“I told Coach Kopsco I can definitely help in some situations, whether it be on third or second and I long,” said Smith. “I think I can come in and make a difference.”

Smith’s pass-catching ability on offense has put himself on the map, so perhaps its those skills on defense where he permanently cements his Needham legacy.

No comments :