Talk about a fairytale ending.
When USC place kicker Matt Boermeester capped one of the most thrilling Rose Bowl Game comebacks in history Monday in Pasadena, former Menlo School lineman Zach Smith was right in the middle of the celebration.
That’s because it was Smith — the Trojans’ special teams long snapper for the past four years — who snapped the ball perfectly to holder Wyatt Schmidt for Boermeester’s 46-yard game-winner with no time remaining on the game clock, marking the end of Smith’s collegiate career in grand style.
“We were just more excited than anything to go out there and win in that situation,” Smith said. “It was a great way to finish my college career. It was incredible.”
For any high school players thinking special teams is a dead-end gig, one needs look no further than Smith for inspiration. When Smith joined the Menlo varsity squad in 2010, he had ambitions of playing quarterback. At 6-2 with a strong arm, he had the tools. The problem was the Knights were already stacked at the position.
Smith found three future collegiate athletes head of him on Menlo’s quarterback depth chart. Starter Jack Heneghan would move on to Dartmouth College, where as a junior in 2016 he led the Ivy League in passing with 2,725 yards. Matt Bradley, who played one year of college football as a slot receiver, and Mikey Diekroeger, currently a starting infielder for the Stanford baseball team, were the others.
So, Smith made a career leap that would determine his fate of playing football through college, and possibly beyond. He took to an overall lineman role, playing both sides of the ball. But it was those early days at Menlo where he first forged his way as a long snapper.
“We’re incredibly proud of Zach,” Menlo head coach Mark Newton said. “He’s worked really hard and really perfected his craft. It was not only one of the best bowl games we’ve all ever seen, but it was really neat to have a former (Menlo) player in making that clutch snap ... on the last play of the game.”
Working at clinics with long-snapping guru Chris Rubio, Smith refined his technique and quickly began drawing the interest of Division I programs. Newton said USC wasn’t the only Pac-12 program to recruit Smith heavily, but the Redwood City native ultimately chose to navigate south to the land of Troy.
Smith took over as USC’s field-goal snapper from the outset of his freshman season of 2013. It was in the Trojans’ Las Vegas Bowl appearance later that year when he took over as the punt snapper. He has served as both ever since.
“It’s a really unique path to take, especially if you’re interested in being a special teams player,” Smith said. “I always wanted to play college football but I wasn’t really big enough to play Division I. ... So it was really a unique path for me to keep playing the sport I love.”
Monday’s Rose Bowl was such a wild back-and-forth shootout, who could have predicted it would come down to a decisive field goal? Smith said Boermeester said to him early in the game that this was precisely the way the game would draw up. And just like the junior place kicker’s accuracy between the goal posts, his intuition proved to be spot on.
“It was pretty funny,” Smith said. “He was ready for it.”
Now Smith is dreaming big with the possibility of a professional career riding on his performance in the NFL Combine, running Feb. 28 to March 6.
“I think that’s the goal for anyone playing college football,” Smith said. “Especially at USC, you’re surrounded by a lot of talented players. ... So I’ll definitely be giving it a shot this spring and working really hard.”