Penn State head coach James Franklin summoned Louisa County (Va.) High School sophomore Brandon Smith into his office April 14, unwilling to let history repeat itself. Just weeks removed from his first visit to Happy Valley, the 2019 recruit entered the room with cautious optimism.
“I had a feeling I might get that offer, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high in case it didn’t happen,” he said.
Smith, a 6-foot-5, 218-pound prospect, could exhale a few moments later. Franklin, joined by defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brent Pry and assistant director of player personnel Kenny Sanders, presented him with a scholarship offer.
The head coach joked he had received some heat from his staff for not pulling the trigger during Smith’s late-March stay in State College. This time, the 16-year-old standout returned south with a coveted collegiate opportunity in his possession.
The Nittany Lions joined Duke, Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech on an offer list that figures to expand rapidly during the next two years.
“We knew Brandon was going to be big-time back when he was in middle school,” Louisa County head coach Mark Fischer said. “He’s probably going to be one of those special kids that us as high school coaches get once every blue moon, if we’re lucky. He’s got all the tools, desire and passion.”
Smith, who spent his freshman year at Fork Union Military Academy before returning to his hometown last summer, is considered the No. 3 overall Virginia recruit and a top-10 defensive end talent in 247Sports’ early 2019 rankings. His sophomore film shows flashes of a scintillating game-changer who competes with enthusiasm.
“I love playing sideline to sideline, creating big hits and just wreaking havoc,” Smith said.
It’s a direct result of the mindset he carries each day, according to Fischer.
“Between the whistles, Brandon is not going to be denied,” he said. “He’s never encountered a situation on the field where he doesn’t believe he can dominate. And just as impressive, he takes the same approach in the classroom.”
Fischer and his staff implemented Smith across the field throughout his sophomore season. Though he primarily played inside linebacker, duties included outside linebacker, defensive end, receiver, fullback, long snapper and even slot cornerback.
Smith tallied 75 tackles – 17 for loss – 10 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 2016.
Mike Fletcher, an all-conference defensive back at Oregon and former CFL player, now coaches linebackers throughout The Opening’s national camp circuit. He assessed Smith with high praise after working with him Sunday in Virginia during a regional event.
“Obviously the first thing you notice is his size, especially with those long arms,” Fletcher said. “He’s got a really great frame so young, which brings up the question when you watch his film. He’s like a Swiss Army knife, so which position will he play at the next level?”
Smith shared that the colleges he’s communicated with so far envision his future at either outside linebacker or defensive end. Fischer said he believes a variety of programs will present different opinions on the matter.
“It really is a mixed bag,” he said. “Virginia Tech has even said they may turn him into a tight end. Maybe others see him as a guy you bring in, put 30 pounds on and put him at offensive tackle. Our challenge at this level is to move Brandon around the field on defense to keep him involved with 90 percent of plays.”
To keep opponents unsure about how to handle Smith, Fischer is considering creating multiple packages centered on setting up his young budding star for success. He assigned Smith notable homework this offseason: study the high school film of Houston Texans edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
The former South Carolina star eventually emerged as the No. 1 overall NFL draft selection in 2014.
“I know it sounds ambitious, but I see Brandon as a player who has that kind of ability,” Fischer said. “He’s probably the first and only kid I’ve considered redesigning our scheme for, which is a credit to him. We’re looking at maybe going to an odd front so we can put him on the edge with his hand in the ground. It’s all an experiment to see how many ways we can get him around the football.”
Fletcher, who has seen hundreds of eventual Power 5 starters and dozens of NFL draft picks work their way through the The Opening circuit, is equally intrigued by Smith’s defensive range.
“I think he’s probably best suited to be a strongside linebacker, whether it’s a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme,” he said. “He’s kind of a traditional ‘Sam’ and even though we haven’t really seen it yet, I’m betting he can put his hand in the dirt and really get after people that way.”
Smith finished the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds Sunday on a rain-soaked field. He also registered a 4.2-second agility shuttle and 33.9-inch vertical leap.
His resultant Nike football rating (99.54) led all linebackers in attendance, regardless of age.
— Brandon Smith (@brand0n_smith12) April 23, 2017
When asked to draw comparisons for Smith, Fletcher pointed to physical similarities with top-ranked 2016 linebacker recruit Ben Davis. The former 5-star prospect is entering his redshirt freshman season at Alabama.
He mentioned Ohio State sophomore linebacker Keandre Jones while discussing Smith’s football savvy.
“Brandon has a bright future ahead of him,” Fletcher said. “He’s a smart kid, he listens, he has very violent hands and keeps his feet moving through contact. He finishes well, and that’s one thing that really stands out on film.”
Smith, who also plays basketball, will work on his craft at other camps this spring. Summer travel plans feature anticipated return trips to Penn State, Virginia Tech and Virginia, a university that he said is “basically in my backyard.”
Along with the offers he’s collected so far, Smith noted mounting interest from programs such as North Carolina, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. As word of his camp performances and sophomore film circulate across college football, it shouldn’t surprise if he enters next season with more than a dozen offers.
Smith quickly gained perspective of his new reality.
“I think of it like this – you play your first varsity game and the speed is fast. That’s your first offer,” he said. “Then as you gain experience on the field, things start to slow down and you feel more comfortable. That’s kind of where I am now as these other schools are now recruiting me.”
Penn State figures to play a prominent role in the process. Franklin already attracted Smith to campus twice this spring, and the Nittany Lions claim abundant momentum in Virginia’s fertile high school football scene.
Smith is familiar with a pair of 2017 Penn State signees from the state — linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brailyn Franklin. He also shares a name with current Nittany Lions linebacker Brandon Smith, a former walk-on who finished sixth on the squad in tackles last season.
“It seemed like every five minutes the coaches were bringing that up,” he said. “He’s been a good player for them, and now they want me to keep that name going on the team. We were just laughing about it.”
— Brandon Smith (@brand0n_smith12) April 14, 2017
Expect immense competition in this chase. Players equipped with Smith’s physical stature and mental maturity rarely remain unnoticed in collegiate recruiting departments.
“He’s a workaholic when it comes to the weight room and conditioning,” Fischer said. “Brandon works just as hard, if not harder, during the offseason, which is rare at 15, 16 years old. His focus isn’t on girls or parties; it’s on improving and making sure he enters the season prepared.”
Fletcher, who spent his Pac-12 career counted on as a key contributor, said he believes Smith is tailor-made for today’s college football setting. Franklin and his staff have acknowledged it, and they’ll have mounting company in the months ahead.
“His love for the game and demeanor on defense will be infectious and spread to other guys,” Fletcher said. “Those are players a coach needs to have on the field and in the classroom. The guy is juiced up about the opportunity to play this game, and that’s someone you want in your program.”