INDIANAPOLIS–At end of three collegiate seasons at USC, linebacker Cameron Smith had already amassed a plethora of accolades and was ready to join the NFL.
Appearing in 37 games, Smith notched 273 tackles, one touchdown, 14 passes deflected and four interceptions along with several awards including Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and several other All-Pac-12 honors. On top of that, he helped lead USC to a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in 2017, a Pac-12 Championship win over Stanford and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Ohio State.
The writing was on the wall for him to depart USC like his teammate and eventual No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. Instead, Smith returned for a fourth season.
While the typical collegiate athlete is ready to depart their school in favor of the ability to play at the professional level with large-scale contracts, Smith knew that he had so much more to give USC and in turn, USC had so much more to teach him.
At the 2019 NFL Combine, Smith said that in hindsight the decision ultimately paid off.
“I couldn’t imagine myself, who I was, my body at the time, being in this position now,” Smith said. “Looking back on it now, it was such a beneficial move for me and I’m just glad that I did it.”
In his senior year, Smith amassed 81 tackles in 10 games and was named to the Senior Bowl along with recognition on the All-Pac-12 second team.
“[The Senior Bowl] was a great week,” Smith said. “There was a long schedule and long days. They were valuable and I learned a ton from that.”
However, Smith did not return to USC to simply build up his body, he also wanted to further develop his leadership skills.
Already a captain for the 2017 season, Smith repeated again in 2018. His goal: To reach more people.
"I definitely branched out in the locker room," Smith said. "That was a goal of mine to branch out in the locker room and make sure that I could reach all 105-110 teammates."
The 2019 NFL draft class is loaded with linebackers like Smith. Ohio State's Nick Bosa, Alabama's Quinnen Williams and Clemson's Dexter Lawrence all headline a class filled with capable defenders on the front-line.
So much so, that there's a good chance that not all go in the first round.
“Because there are so many top prospects in the front seven who can pressure the quarterback, a few will drop into the second round, where teams will get terrific value with them,” John McClain, the Houston Chronicle’s Texans beat reporter, told Annenberg Media earlier this week.
And while many of these defenders carry with them larger stats, College Football Playoff National Championship titles or even a long lineage of success at the professional level, Smith is hoping that his ability to be a leader on and off the field will help set him apart.
“Not everyone’s a leader, it’s not always natural to be a leader,” Smith said. “It’s something that I can definitely add to an organization.”
Not only is Smith ready to be a leader on a potential team, but he is ready to prove to doubters that he is a three-down linebacker, something many have criticized.
“I think that’s a misconception, and I think that I’m ready to show that I am three-downs,” Smith said. “I’m excited to do that.”
To become that three-down linebacker, Smith worked extensively with USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
“Over the last three years with [Defensive Coordinator] Clancy Pendergast, I worked really hard to improve myself to help him and his scheme,” Smith said. “I think that was not a challenge for me, but I worked really hard for that. I worked to earn his respect and be his rock so that everything functions on the field.”
Smith has already taken interviews with both the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both provide lucrative options including potential starting roles out of camp and the opportunity to reunite with former Trojan players in tackle Chad Wheeler and tailback Ronald Jones II respectively.
Still, whatever team does draft Smith, he will be ready to compete.
“Whether it’s in the locker room or on the field calling defense, I just feel like I have a lot to bring in those aspects.”