Liam Smith had the perfect teacher when it came to learning the nuances of being an offensive left tackle at the high-profile Red Bank Catholic program in current Notre Dame redshirt-freshman Quenton Nelson.
Smith had transferred to RBC from Red Bank Regional and had previously played tight end when Nelson took the then-sophomore under his wing.
“I learned a ton from Quenton,” said Smith, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior. “He was a great mentor to me, a great friend. He was very patient with me. He taught me everything I know about technique, fundamentals.
“Also, he just really exemplified the amount of work you have to put in to be a great high school player in the weight room, watching film, knowing the assignments. That’s kind of helped me become the player I am today.”
What Smith is today is a future NCAA Division I-A player. He made a non-binding verbal commitment to Duke University last spring.
Last year, he was an Asbury Park Press First-Team All-Shore selection after a season in which the play of the Caseys offensive line helped them win the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III championship for the school’s first NJSIAA football title since 1976.
Smith remembers watching Nelson constantly during his sophomore season.
“Every single rep I was watching him. Just the way he handled himself … the steps he took … the leverage he played with,’’ Smith said. “He was a great leader to follow.”
While naturally hesitant to compare players, Red Bank Catholic coach Jim Portela said Smith and Nelson do have a similar characteristic.
“You know what the great offensive lineman have in high school: They have an edge to them, that they want to finish blocks,” Portela said. “They’re mean-type kids and nasty, and he’s got that.
“A lot of times in high school the bigger guys we’ve seen, even in the past here at Red Bank Catholic, they do it, but they’re not going to finish the blocks maybe all the way. He’s got it. He’s a physical football player.
“He likes to play the game. He enjoys the nature of it. He likes to mix it up.”
Smith admitted to having some nerves when he was the one replacing the then-graduated Nelson at the start of last season.
“The shoes were so big to fill,” Smith said. “His level of play was so high. I felt like I had to play as good as he did right away.”
However, Smith soon realized it was not a good idea putting that much pressure on himself.
“I just had to be the best Liam Smith I could be and not worry about being the next Quenton Nelson and just do my job,” Smith said.
A lot of times offensive lineman only get noticed when things go wrong, like when a quarterback is getting sacked or the running backs can not find any holes or there is a procedure penalty on the offensive line.
When things are going well for an offense, the notoriety will go mostly to the quarterback, the running backs and the wide receivers.
The coaches, of course know, an offense only goes as far as the line takes them.
“I don’t really worry about it,” Smith said. “I try to make it so nothing does go wrong and not get noticed. I take pride in the little things. You’ve got to show up every snap and play at 110 percent. You’ve got to do all the little things right, or otherwise something will go wrong.
“It’s an expectation that I have of myself to hold myself to a high standard, go hard every single play and execute my assignment.”
And the work of Smith and his fellow offensive linemen is certainly appreciated by quarterback Eddie Hahn. Knowing Smith has his blind side protected is a security blanket for Hahn.
“I don’t even have to look to my left side with him and Ryan Oneidas (the left guard),” Hahn said. “I’ve gotten the chance to play with probably the two best tackles that have come to RBC since I can remember in Quenton Nelson and Liam Smith. It’s definitely a privilege.”
Smith had 11 FBS scholarship offers when he decided to choose Duke over Rutgers, Syracuse and Virginia.
Duke, known more for its powerful men’s basketball program, has become a solid football program under head coach David Cutcliffe, who was an assistant coach at Tennessee when Peyton Manning was the Volunteers’ quarterback and was Ole Miss’ head coach when Eli Manning was the Rebels’ quarterback. Duke has gone 19-8 the last two seasons.
“I’m in love with Duke. As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I was blown away,” Smith said. “I loved the coaching staff. I love all the players I’ve met there. I’m really excited to be part of it.”
Greatest Teams in Red Bank Catholic History
Red Bank Catholic won the Non-Public South A title.
Red Bank Catholic went 11-1 and won Non-Public Group III for its first NJSIAA title in 38 years.