MINERAL — For the past two years, Brandon Smith has had dozens of the top college coaches recognize him as one of the best high school football players in the country.
But Alabama’s Nick Saban and Penn State’s James Franklin weren’t the first coaches to recognize Smith’s talents. His grandfather, Matt Smith, identified his ability as a seven year old.
“He told me, B.J., you’re going to be a hell of an athlete one day,” Brandon recalled. Perplexed by his assessment, Smith asked his grandfather how he knew.
“His response was simple,” Brandon said. “I see something special in you. Trust and believe and you’ll be one of the best in the country.”
More than a decade later, Matt Smith’s evaluation has proved to be spot on.
Brandon Smith is the top-ranked linebacker in the country. He was recently named the Jefferson District Defensive Player of the Year and led the Lions to a district championship, an 11-1 record and another trip to the Class 4 Region B semifinals.
Those accomplishments made the 6-foot-5, 225-pound middle linebacker a sure-fire selection as the final Schewels Athlete of the Week of the fall season.
Family ties run deep for Smith, who first started playing football at the age of six for the Louisa Wildcats. His father, Rico, coached the team, along with Tony Banks, whose son, Jarett Hunter, played alongside Brandon at the high school level.
He also played basketball, baseball and ran track as a youngster before finally settling in on football as his sport of choice as an eighth grader.
“Nobody but my grandfather at the time believed it, because I was an unorthodox, uncoordinated kid that was decent at sports,” Brandon said. “There were many struggles with me and sports at the time, but my body matured, and I started getting more comfortable. That’s when my grandfather’s words started becoming a reality. I developed a mindset to where I couldn’t and wouldn’t be denied in anything and everything I did involving around sports and schools.”
Smith’s high school career started at nearby Fork Union Military Academy, where he spent his freshman season. After a year with the Blue Devils’ program, Smith returned to Louisa County to play for a program that was on the rise under former coach Mark Fischer.
“I knew how the Louisa football environment was because of the amount of games I attended, but I never realized how magnificent it was until I was actually playing in it,” Smith said.
The start wasn’t a memorable one. Smith said he wasn’t “completely terrible” but admitted that he was trying to do too much on the field at one time because he wanted to show that he was one of the best on the field.
After long talks with Fischer and countless hours of intense practices and watching film, the game slowed down for him.
“I started to come into my own and started playing at a high level,” Smith said. “I figured out the small things early on by trial and error, but when the switch flipped, everything clicked, and I was good to go.”
The past two seasons, Smith emerged as a leader for the Lions. He led the squad in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss and was a player opposing coaches were forced to scheme against every week.
“The last couple years playing for Louisa have been great,” he said. “Personally, coming into my own, it was a big achievement and being a better teammate and leader to the younger guys as well.”
His reputation grew nationally over the past two summers as he traveled to numerous summer camps and prospect combines on the East Coast and in the Midwest to learn more about the position and make a name for himself in recruiting circles.
“Knowing I was from a small county made it really difficult because there has never been anyone of that caliber around Louisa,” Smith said. “With that in the back of my mind, it made me more determined to let people know who I am and where I came from. As the seasons went by and I got better and better, more people came through Louisa County to figure out who Brandon Smith is.”
Last week, the Louisa County senior was named a finalist for the high school Dick Butkus Award, which is presented annually to the top linebacker in the country. He’s also a finalist for the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year.
“The award means the world to me because I’m not only going to be classified as one of the best, if not the best linebacker in the country,” Smith said. “But the person they named it after has a great amount of honor behind his name.”
Smith’s work ethic away from football is just as strong. This fall he was inducted into the National Honor Society, one of the highest academic honors a student can earn. The organization is currently hosting a toy drive through Nov. 30 and all items and proceeds are being accepted at the high school.
He also gives back to the community by serving as a mentor to young people at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School, which he has done over the past two years through the Lion Buddy program. During game days, or other available times, he devotes 30 minutes to forge relationships with young students in the community.
Moss-Nuckols counselor Todd Ryan and high school counselor Ashlie Woodward asked Smith to join the program and the senior jumped at the chance.
“I took the position because I’ve always loved being around kids and doing what I can to help people,” Smith said. “Every time I visit the school, I have a warm feeling rush throughout my body, because I know I’m doing the right thing.”
One of the highlights of the program is the bond Smith has formed with LaRod Wells.
“LaRod is a quiet, soft-spoken kid that I have had the pleasure to work with for two years,” Smith said. “Recently, LaRod lost a close family member and I have been there to basically talk with him and cheer him up whenever he is feeling down and to also be that shoulder for him to lean on.”
Smith said the program is one of the best things that he’s been involved at during his time at Louisa County High School.
“Every time I see LaRod, and all the rest of the kids smiling, it reminds me of my purpose on this earth,” Smith said. “To be, not only a great student-athlete, but also be a great peer, mentor and friend to kids in the community.”
Louisa County athletic director George Stanley couldn’t be prouder.
“Brandon is a once-in-a-lifetime player and a great young man,” Stanley said. “Our school and community are all proud of each and every accolade he has received, but we are most proud of his great character, work ethic on the field and in the classroom, as well as his willingness to give back to the youth in our community.”
Stanley said that Smith’s performance has raised the bar at not only Louisa County, but throughout the region.
“It’s been a pleasure to see the high level of exposure he has brought to high school football in Central Virginia, which is great for all of the programs and players in our area,” Stanley said. “There are talented players in this area and Brandon has helped to solidify that for sure, being one of the nation’s best. I am thankful for what our coaches and players have done for him and also for the great support system he has received from his family. He will be missed, but we look forward to his next steps at Penn State.”
Smith is expected to graduate early next month and plans to enroll at Penn State in January to prepare for spring practice with the Nittany Lions. Aside from the last-second loss to Eastern View in the Class 4 Region B semifinals, he couldn’t have asked for a better senior season.
“The biggest thing for me this year was to play on a high level and to end my high school season with a bang,” Smith said. “My time here at Louisa County High School has been great and I have been shown support from a lot of teachers, students and staff members through this recruiting journey. I’m very excited to be going to college in such a short among of time. I’m looking forward to a change of pace and being able to be more independent. As far as challenges, there are going to be school, sports and social challenges, but with time and the knowledge to make the right adjustments as needed, it shouldn’t be anything I can’t handle and succeed in.”