Smith can take it the distance

Wally Grant used to sell bats for a living, so he knows a home-run hitter when he sees one.

On the football field, Grant has one in Mario Smith. The senior running back last week took Costa Mesa High's first play from scrimmage to the house.

In five seconds, he covered 77 yards. Smith is fast, but not that explosive.

Whoever ran the scoreboard that night at Garden Grove High must have started the clock late on Smith's touchdown run. Grant said he's clocked Smith in the 40-yard dash several times at 4.4 seconds.

The math doesn't add up for a run almost twice as long as the 40-yard dash.

One thing that was accurate about Smith's run was no one was catching the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder after he broke up the middle.

"I know I'm going to beat everybody out here," said Smith, before pointing out the reasons for his success. "But it's all about just our linemen. If our linemen block and stay focused, there's no stopping us."

The only person getting in Smith's way was his coach. Six carries is all Grant gave Smith.

He made the most of the limited touches against Santiago. Smith recorded 149 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half.

Smith's time was up. The Mustangs ran away with a 42-7 victory, their first win of the season, their first win under Grant.

"Just enough of work to get a sweat going and then get him out and keep him healthy," Grant said. "He was a workhorse the week before [in a 34-13 season-opening loss at Buena Park, where he carried the ball 32 times for 136 yards and one touchdown]. It was nice for him to be able to catch a breath.

"I could've left him in and he probably would've had 500 yards when it was all said and done, but that's not what we're trying to get accomplished here."

What Grant is aiming to do is turn around the Mustangs' program, back to the days of 1993. Back then, Costa Mesa won the program's first outright league title and reached its only CIF Southern Section title game.

Grant was a part of that staff as an assistant. He's now in his first year in charge of his alma mater. What better way to start his first varsity head coaching stint than with an electrifying tailback in Smith.

When Smith said he moved into town in May because his mother found a better job, Kiesha Brown gave her son two options. He can transfer from Silverado High in Victorville to Costa Mesa or Estancia.

Smith said he didn't know much about the cross-town rival schools. The obvious choice might have been to go to Estancia. The Eagles last season went undefeated in Orange Coast League play to claim the program's first outright title in 21 years.

Smith decided to run with the Mustangs, who last year finished tied for fourth place and missed the postseason for the first time since 2006.

"I'd rather go to a team where everybody has something worth working for and changing the program around," said Smith, who is a natural leader in Grant's eyes.

What Smith has to offer Costa Mesa is a valued work ethic on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom. His speed is something, Grant said, you couldn't coach.

Smith's attributes are the same ones Grant has seen in other standout running backs he coached while as an assistant at Tustin High for 11 years.

One comparison Grant made was to DeShaun Foster, who with the Tillers in 1997 rushed for 3,398 yards and 59 touchdowns, both rank in the top five in the CIF State record book. Foster went on to star at UCLA and play in the NFL.

"It's all going to depend on his health, and if he stays healthy, there's no telling what he's going to accomplish," said Grant of Smith, who has Colorado, Washington, Iowa and Eastern Washington recruiting him. "I've been around enough running backs that have gotten 1,000 yards, 2,000 yards, 3,000 yards [in a single season]."

If Smith expects to hit his goal of 2,000 yards on the ground, he most likely has to run for more than one half every game. He has the blockers, left tackle Jake Martin, left guard Idren Luna, center Kevin Salyer, right guard Christian Contreras and right tackle Joseph Delgado, to create holes.

On the other hand, if Grant pulls Smith at halftime, it means he's hit the home run early and the Mustangs are on their way to winning.

"I'm hoping that happens every week," Grant said.


Mario Smith

Born: Jan. 16, 1994

Hometown: Los Angeles

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 185 pounds

Position: Running back

Coach: Wally Grant

Favorite food: Pizza

Favorite movie: "Boyz n the Hood"

Favorite athletic moment: "My first touchdown on varsity. It was in 2009 [with] Silverado."

Week in review: Smith rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns on six carries, helping Costa Mesa beat Santiago, 42-7, to earn its first victory of the season.

Twitter: @dcpenaloza

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