Smith enrolled at WSU in January and participated in an open tryout in March. He showed promise, and was one of eight invited to join the team through the end of spring ball.
“Smithy, don’t stand your knees up, you want some power there,” Washington State defensive-line coach Jeff Phelps called to freshman defensive end Nicholas Smith.
“Yes sir,” Smith acknowledged with a crisp nod before rotating to the back of the line.
The “yes sir” comes naturally to Smith, who, at this time last year, was a Marine Corps corporal stationed at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego,
Smith, who spent four years in the Marines before his discharge last December, is thought to be the first military veteran to join the WSU football team since the early 2000s, when running back Dave Minnich (2000-01) and defensive back Wendell Smith (1999, 2002), both Marine veterans, played for the Cougars.
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Smith enrolled at WSU in January and participated in the football team’s open tryout in March. He showed promise, and was one of eight invited to join the team as walk-ons through the end of spring ball.
Smith knows he’s not guaranteed a roster spot past the spring game, but he’s hoping to impress the coaches enough to be invited back this summer.
Like Wendell Smith and Minnich, Nicholas Smith, 22, served a full term of enlistment in the Marines out of high school.
The Marine Corps taught him leadership skills, gave him time to mature and cultivated his work ethic, Smith said.
Without the Marine Corps, Smith believes there’s no way he would have gotten a shot at playing for a Pac-12 football team, and it’s unlikely he would have taken the path he’s chosen for himself – taking pre-med classes in hopes of becoming a doctor in the U.S. Navy.
Makings of a football player and a medicine man
Camp Leatherneck is a hot, dusty military base in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan where there’s little for U.S. Marines to do in their down time other than work out.
It was within the confines of this Marine Corps base in the Afghan desert that Smith began his transformation from an undersized 6-foot-1, 200-pound high school football player to the 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive end that he’s listed as on WSU’s spring football roster.
Smith deployed to Camp Leatherneck in April 2014, and for six months helped the Marines get ready to turn the base over to the Afghan Armed Forces.
As a heavy-equipment operator in Combat Logistics Regiment 15, Smith had the somewhat mundane job of destroying or packing up everything that belonged to the Marine Corps in preparation for its move back to the United States.
But in his down time, he worked out hard, lifting weights twice a day – in the mornings and the evenings – running whenever he could, and packing pounds of muscle onto his once slender frame.
Smith said his stint at Camp Leatherneck set the foundation for his future in more than one way.
“It was the best six months of my enlistment,” Smith said. “You learn so much out there, and you get really close with your buddies. That’s also where I found my passion for medicine.”
In high school, Smith had been intrigued by the field of sports medicine, but wasn’t a serious enough student to entertain the idea of becoming a doctor.
“I don’t think I was a bad student, but I didn’t do things like sit down and take notes. I was smart enough I could half-ass a class and still get A’s and B’s,” Smith said. “I had a GPA of 3.3 in high school. If I’d put in the effort, I could have had a 3.7 or 3.8.”
In Afghanistan, his interest in human physiology was rekindled, and he found himself chatting up the corpsmen and military doctors around the base to learn more about their jobs.
In June 2014, the Marines at Camp Leatherneck found out a roadside bomb had gone off and fatally injured three enlisted men.
“I knew one of the guys,” Smith said. “And, I thought, ‘I could actually help these people if I were a medic. I realized, I have an interest in (combat medicine) and if I can turn the interest into a passion and learn this, I can be useful.”
That day became the catalyst for Smith’s life plans: he would finish out his enlistment in the Marine Corps, then get his undergraduate degree, apply and get through med school, and rejoin the military as a Navy medical officer.
From USMC football to college football
In October 2014, Smith returned home from deployment having filled out his uniforms considerably. He was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and almost immediately started playing rugby with the Marine Corps rugby team.
Then, guys in his platoon convinced Smith to join their unit’s football team. Smith had played prep football at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., starting out on the offensive and defensive lines before moving to tight end and linebacker and finishing his career at left guard.
But a 6-foot-1, 200-pound left guard isn’t going to attract much attention from college coaches. Smith had Division III offers from the University of Puget Sound and Occidental College, but he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps instead.
But back from a deployment and halfway through his four-year service commitment, Smith returned to the football field for the first time since high school to find that he’d missed the game.
In his new, more muscular body, Smith found he could move faster and more efficiently than he did in high school.
“This is so much more fun when you have an extra 50 pounds on your body,” Smith says.
The Marine Corps is the only military branch that offers full pads, 11-on-11 tackle football as an intramural sport, and Smith played for the 7th Engineer Support Battalion team in the Camp Pendleton Football League.
Smith played linebacker for the 7th Engineers, and finished the 2015 season with 103 tackles. His team trained five mornings a week, and the regular season ran from August through the end of the October
With the help of a football teammate, Aaron Mills, who’d been recruited by several Power Five football programs out of high school, Smith started working toward a new goal: playing college football.
He took encouragement from stories of other veterans who’d successfully earned spots on college teams. Former Army Green Beret Nate Boyer played for Texas from 2012-14 and then had a short stint with the Seahawks, Daniel Rodriguez left the Army, walked on at Clemson, and eventually had a shot at the NFL with the Rams.
Then there’s the case of Steven Rhodes, a former Marine who’d played in a USMC full-contact football league like Smith had. Rhodes walked on at Middle Tennessee State in 2013 and had to fight an NCAA rule that would have ruled him ineligible because he’d played in a organized recreational football league during his military service. Rhodes was ultimately granted an exemption and allowed to play, which helped open the door for others like Smith in similar circumstances.
Mills, Smith’s Marine Corps football teammate, walked on to the football team at Kentucky before dropping out of college to join the Marines, and he helped Smith navigate the college football world.
Mills told Smith to get on Twitter to interact with college coaches, and pushed Smith to new heights in workouts, watching film and training together on a regular basis.
Smith’s high-school football coach, Mike Durant, helped him create a highlight reel of his Marine Corps football film, and they sent it to dozens of FBS and FCS football coaches around the country.
Durant says the Camp Pendleton football league probably plays at a level on par with Division III college football. He attended one of Smith’s games and was taken by how much Smith had grown as a football player since he left Redwood High.
“He’s gotten bigger, faster and stronger than in high school, and his football I.Q. had gone up tremendously,” Durant said.
The University of San Diego, Colorado, Oregon State and WSU responded to Smith’s emails inquiring about walk-on opportunities. Smith visited WSU last June, and again when WSU played UCLA. He loved what he saw and decided to apply.
“Pullman and the Palouse was the geographic location I wanted to go to,” Smith said. “I knew I wanted to get out of the city because I’d spent so much time in San Diego and Los Angeles. What sealed the deal was that Pullman was a college town, and I wanted to stay on the West Coast. They were so nice, and it was an awesome program.”
Becoming a Coug
Smith started classes at WSU this spring and is on the pre-med track, with an emphasis in neuroscience.
He accomplished his immediate goal when he made it through walk-on tryouts and got to join the football team this spring. Now, he needs to prove he can compete at this level if he hopes to be invited back this summer.
“He’s a great young man, and he’s hungry to learn,” said Phelps, Smith’s position coach. “He plays with a motor and he loves the game. He’s got a passion for it. You gotta love that out of a young man, and a young man who’s taken the path he’s taken. You can’t do nothing but respect that. He adds some great character for the group.”
Spring ball with the Cougars has been “like nothing I could have expected, and probably more challenging than I expected,” Smith said. “Practices are fast and nothing like I’ve experienced in the Marine Corps or high school. But it’s been great. I feel like I’ve learned more about football in four weeks than I did in four years in high school. The level of knowledge that’s spread throughout the whole team is incredible.”
Some days are harder than others because Smith is still learning Alex Grinch’s defense.
But then there are good days, like WSU’s first spring scrimmage when Smith, on the punt block team, sprang off the line, hands outstretched and blocked a punt to the cheers of teammates.
On those days, the dream feels like it’s a half-step closer to becoming reality.
“I love Pullman and I love WSU,” Smith says. “I have no plan to go to the NFL and interest in doing that. I just want to be a stellar college football player and blow people’s minds, and maybe by my junior or senior year, become a captain. That’s where the dream is.”