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As a young boy growing up in Pinetops, football saved Carl Smith and paved the way to a playing career as a running back at Campbell University.
Now, at the tender age of 29, he’ll sink his teeth into his first head coaching assignment at the high school level after being selected as the ninth coach in the history of Beddingfield football.
“It’s a different city, obviously, and a different town,” Smith said. “But ultimately, these kids go through the same things. I was a part of it — I didn’t grow up in a middle-class or upper-class home. I was on the poverty line, just like most of them. I needed a ride from coach, and I needed help with resources. And football saved my life.”
He replaces James Ward, who departed to take over the program at 4-A Raleigh Wakefield in May. Smith’s tenure will represent the 10th administration for a Bruins football coach, counting the two separate stints of Tyrone Johnson.
“Beddingfield is known in the coaching circles that I run in to have very good talent,” Smith said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “Very good athletes, and just far as overall support as far as what the kids are able to do and the ability to play football at a high level. I felt like if I was able to get in there and turn some things around, bring some discipline, I feel like we may be able to hit a new level at Beddingfield.”
Despite not having a junior varsity program for the first time in school history and what is believed to be Wilson County history, the Bruins went 9-3 last season and finished in second place in the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference. The year before, the Bruins were 8-5 and won a share of the EPC title, beating Nash Central and SouthWest Edgecombe, the two teams with which Beddingfield shared the 2017 crown.
Smith, a 2007 graduate of SouthWest Edgecombe and later its defensive coordinator before leaving for a defensive backs coaching position at Rocky Mount, doesn’t intend to reinvent the entire wheel that is Beddingfield football.
“We want to keep as many things as they were comfortable with last year, but we want to keep them if it’s not going to hurt the overall culture,” Smith said. “We’re going to keep things as familiar as we possibly can, and then change the things that we absolutely have to. That’s the trajectory that we’re on right now.”
Beddingfield athletic director Jody O’Neal said that the opening attracted a mix of assistants as well as current head coaches.
“There was a lot of quality,” O’Neal said. “Several coaches that are head coaches now, and some assistants, like assistant coaches on different staffs or whatever. We had some great candidates, but we think Carl’s the guy to lead us in the future.”
A native of Newark, New Jersey, Smith moved to Pinetops when he was in the sixth grade. There, he played football at SouthWest under the tutelage of the legendary Raymond Cobb. After graduating from Campbell in 2011, the elder Cobb brought Smith back to SouthWest as his linebackers and defensive ends coach in his final season before retirement. Once Jonathan Cobb took over the program, Smith was elevated to the Cougars’ defensive coordinator post in 2014, a role he held for two seasons. Smith’s final game at SouthWest was a 22-21 overtime loss to Kinston in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A East finals.
Now, he’ll have to oppose the Cougars in a season where the EPC will turn over half of its ranks — including the installation of Eddie Rhodes at Farmville Central and Michael Barnett at North Johnston.
“It’s going to be extremely weird,” Smith said of taking on the Cougars. “I love SouthWest, and I make no shame about it. That’s my alma mater. I love the Cougars, I love Coach Cobb and everything he’s been able to do for me and helping me grow as a coach. It’s going to be different lining up on the other side.”
Smith was among eight finalists interviewed for the position and quickly caught the eye of another branch of the SouthWest coaching tree. While teaching at Fairview Elementary in Rocky Mount, Smith was named Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools First-Year Teacher of the Year for 2017-18.
“We’re a rural school, and he came from a rural school like SouthWest Edgecombe,” Wilson County Schools athletic director Jimmy Tillman said. “So he knows how important it is to get to know all the students and get out into the community and get out into the kids homes and talk to the parents and student athletes as far as getting them out for football.”
Added Tillman: “He was one of those guys that when he walked out of the interview committee, we just looked at each other and said, ‘This is the guy!’
“With the way he presented himself and the way he answered our questions, and then we started calling and checking on his background, that’s exactly what we found out, that he was a good young man.
WINNING THE ROOM
At the start of June, Smith stood before his new team in a meet-and-greet format. Uneasiness permeated the room as Beddingfield players attempted to get to know this new face. Smith wasn’t shy in labeling it as adversity.
But Beddingfield’s seniors, with only one year of prep eligibility remaining, helped build the bridge. Smith cited running backs Jalil Hutcherson and Jah’quez Artis as the key brokering agents.
“It was uneasy at first,” Smith said. “There was a level of uncertainty, as you could imagine with a new coach that nobody kind of knows. After talking to them, I think I had a group of seniors — about 10 of them. Artis, Hutcherson, all of those guys came in and they talked to me individually. And it broke the ice, and I could tell that we were going to have a very strong year from that point on. Because as the seniors, them coming to me, they were more relaxed. They were put at ease, they were calm, and since that point, they’ve been at every practice almost. Anytime they have missed, they have given me a call. So they’ve been held very accountable.”
Currently, Beddingfield is in the midst of voluntary workouts. Hutcherson, a candidate for a strong senior season coming off a year where he ranked eighth in The Wilson Times readership area among running backs, drew praise from Smith for his ability to be coached.
“I had Hutcherson,” Smith began. “We were going over 7-on-7 drills, and I told him something one time. And the very next rep, he applied it, just that quickly. Now normally, that doesn’t happen. That takes weeks. But he was able to apply that adjustment I gave him on the drop of a dime. Those are the signs you want to see, and those are the signs that you see from your senior leadership and your veterans to show that you may have something special.
Given his previous stops in high school football, it should come as no surprise that Smith is a proponent of power-I football on offense. On defense, Smith ran the 4-4 as the defensive boss at SouthWest Edgecombe, but as the Gryphons installed more of a 4-3 look during his time as the DBs coach in Rocky Mount, Smith has integrated more of that look into his schemes.
“That’s what I’ve always liked to do, and I’ve always believed in it,” Smith said of power-I football. “Because I believe you can do a lot of different things from outside of that. That helps you not only with your offense, but with your personnel on defense. As long as we’re doing those types of things, we’ll be OK.”
However, Smith places more of a premium on putting players in the right positions and speed to the football over a particular base alignment at the snap. Any front can produce results if the speed and athleticism is in place, Smith said.
“At the end of the day, they love contact,” he said of his group. “We’re going to hit, we’re going to run and we’re going to hit some more.”
Smith noted the organization of his staff is a work in progress. He and his wife, Kiara, have one daughter, Laila.
“Truthfully, in football, it’s about your adversity and how you handle it,” Smith said. “Well, this team has been hit with adversity before everybody else. So they have an opportunity to change their mentality and to create a different type of culture. In which case, it could propel them in the very near future. And it has, thus far.”