CLEARWATER — Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis knew Jeff Smith’s combination of skills — speed of a sprinter, power arm of a pitcher and accuracy of the best quarterbacks — to be unusual.
Still, Smith was lightly seasoned as a signal caller.
He remained a sporadically used commodity, often entering games last season as a change-of-pace quarterback who provided the Marauders another dimension as a running threat.
Smith's diverse talents became more polished in the offseason, so much that he became a viable competitor with Blake Gomez for the starting job. Gomez was the poised, dropback passer whose mental dexterity helped CCC reach the state semifinals last season.
But Smith's quick acclimation and rapid success surprised even the toughest critics, who expected him to have a rockier transition with increased playing time as a starter. His raw talent and explosive playmaking abilities left opposing defenses grasping at air and led to victories against playoff-bound Jesuit and Ocala Trinity Catholic.
Now Smith, a junior, has taken over as the full-time starter, directing the Marauders (10-2) to their second straight Class 3A state semifinal appearance, this time on the road against Miami Westminster Christian (11-1) tonight.
“Jeff still is a young quarterback, and he’s going to make mistakes,” Davis said. “But he gives us great athleticism at that position with all his attributes. Because of that, opponents know that’s someone they have to take care of on defense.”
Those were the same traits Smith’s father, Jeff Smith Sr., showed at Lakewood in the late 1990s when Davis was an assistant there.
Smith Sr. went on to become an all-conference selection at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and played for several Arena Football League teams.
Thanks to his father, Smith Jr. had football in his blood. He long imagined a route that would bring him closer to the path his father followed.
Smith starred on youth league teams, where he became a force. But that success didn’t guarantee a starting spot in high school. He bided his time under the tutelage of Gomez, who was determined to protect the ball and limit mistakes.
The two worked together for most of the past two seasons. Smith started to gain an edge this year with a series of Houdini acts, turning potential sacks into long gains. That made it tougher for coaches to continue to split the playing time.
Gomez made the decision easier by suggesting midway through this season that he move to receiver.
“I didn’t want to be selfish,” Gomez said. “I wanted to do more to help the team.”
Gomez has excelled at his new position, with eight catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in the past four games.
“Blake really has become a stud at receiver,” Davis said. “You know, he came to me after he switched positions and said he wasn’t able to throw very well this year because his shoulder hurt. Turns out, he had some rotator cuff problems.
“But that’s the kind of kid Blake is. He sacrificed some things to do what’s best for the team. Others have, too. That’s what makes this team so much fun to coach.”
With Gomez at wideout, Smith has been able to accelerate his learning curve.
Smith’s speed and strong arm have been showcased by Davis’ stew of bootlegs and rollouts and even some read options. There are times when Smith has looked poised, confident and sharp. Other times he has looked bewildered.
This season, Smith has thrown for 1,119 yards and seven touchdowns. He also has rushed for 485 yards and seven scores.
“At the start of the season I knew I would be competing for the job,” Smith said. “Now that I’m the starter, it’s a lot more to take in. But I’ve been working hard at getting everything down.”
Tonight, Smith will try to lead CCC to its first state championship game appearance. His ability to make plays will be crucial against a Westminster team that is fast and capable of turning the game into a shootout.
“I have become more comfortable with everything,” Smith said. “I know I’m ready.”
Class 3A state semifinal
Clearwater Central Catholic (10-2) at Miami Westminster Christian (11-1)
At stake: State championship berth against Tampa Catholic-Jacksonville Trinity Christian winner
Scouting Westminster: The Warriors, who advanced to the region final for the first time since 1995, are coached by Sedrick Irvin, a former three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Michigan State. Irvin has a high-powered offense that is balanced. Quarterback Hunter Boyette has thrown for 2,606 yards and 26 touchdowns. Running back Jordan Cronkite has rushed for 1,309 yards and 13 touchdowns. The defense is solid and uses speed rushers to get after the quarterback. James Sutton leads the team with 13 sacks.