Smith another agent of change

COSTA MESA — Costa Mesa High's Green and White Game was supposed to be about a new football coach in charge. Instead, the buzz was mostly about running back Mario Smith.

Maybe he could be known as "Super Mario," because the skills he showed Friday were like something out of a video game. With explosive speed and deft moves, he's on pace to be the team's featured back and the type of addition that can take the offense to another level.

Smith, who will be a senior in the fall, is a transfer from Silverado of Victorville. His younger brother, Justin, is also on the team and will be a junior. Justin is nursing an ankle injury and did not play.

They moved because their mother, Keisha Brown, relocated to work in Costa Mesa. It's safe to say the Mustangs are grateful for that move.

Mario has been clocked at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, he said. He showed great speed throughout and impressed the parents and students on hand for the game that was a non-contact, seven-on-seven scrimmage in which players wore no football gear.

"I feel like we're going to do great things this year," Smith said. "We're going to be unstoppable."

Smith and his teammates are doing their best to transition, as their program is under the direction of Wally Grant, who took over after Jeremy Osso was fired June 1. The Mustangs say they want to move on.

Smith is looking forward to the season with great anticipation. He said he's aware of the rivalry with Estancia and knows the Eagles have a standout running back returning in Robert Murtha, a junior-to-be who was named the Orange Coast League Offensive Player of the Year after he rushed for a school single-season record of 1,679 yards.

"I feel like I'm coming," Smith said about Murtha. "I'm going to show him something."

The Mustangs did their best to put on a good show during their scrimmage. They showed plenty of energy and they were physical. Fernando Caicedo, who will be a senior, left with a broken nose.

Grant's background comes from defense, as he was the defensive coordinator for the Mustangs last season and worked with Myron Miller at Mesa (1992-94) and at Tustin (1995-2005). But much of Friday's event was about offense, with quarterback Nathan Alvis leading the way.

Alvis is also excited about Smith, plus he has the benefit of working with three returning receivers in Jordan Walden, Trace Curet and Jake Comer. Few passes were dropped by the trio, as they displayed chemistry with Alvis.

"He's a great addition," Alvis said of Smith. "We didn't have much of a running game last year, but this year I feel we will have more."

Alvis said he has noticed a change on the team because of the transition.

"It actually motivates us to work harder," Alvis said. "I think we're going to come out harder than we ever have. It's something that happened and we have to work with it … We all love Osso. We miss him. It's going to be a loss, but we just have to get through it. We can't do anything about it now. It's just us and Grant."

Grant, a Costa Mesa alumnus, said his players had been working hard before the transition and continue to work hard. Grant said he is grateful the team's assistant coaches stayed on after Osso was fired.

Osso was removed because the school wanted to go in a different direction, Costa Mesa Principal Phil D'Agostino said. D'Agostino also seeks an on-campus coach for the long term. Grant said he is working toward a teaching credential at National University and is on schedule to earn it within a year.

Grant's title for now is the Mustangs' interim coach.

"I don't know all the dynamics involved," Grant said of Osso's firing. "All I know is that [D'Agositino] came up to me and asked if I wanted this opportunity and it would be mine for this upcoming year. And, depending on how this year went, it could be mine [for the long term]."

Grant left coaching at Tustin because he wanted to devote more time as a sales manager for a bat company, he said. But he missed coaching football and wanted back in. He returned to his roots, and was the defensive coordinator at Mesa last season.

"It's never going to be a perfect transition, but this is about as smooth as it's ever going to be," Grant said, crediting his assistants and the players' work ethic. "There's nothing that Jeremy did right, wrong, or indifferent. It's not about Jeremy. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the kids and they are just moving forward."

Grant said he has installed a new offense. It will be balanced and sometimes feature one or two tight ends, he said. The blocking scheme used by Miller will also be used by the Mustangs, Grant said.

"It's old-school blocking," Grant said. "But it worked when we were here and it worked all those years in Tustin. Everyone and their mother knew where the ball was going, but it worked and I think we went to the playoffs 15 straight years."

Grant said the new offense will showcase the talents of his players, including Smith.

"He's a special kid," said Grant, who coached star running backs DeShaun Foster and Anthony Wilkerson at Tustin. "He's got legit speed. He's an incredibly hard worker … He has intelligence, athletic ability and motivation. It's a complete package … He's going to get this touches and he's going to make the best out of his touches."

Smith looks forward to the opportunity.

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