There are two good reasons Davis Smith won’t soon forget his first football game.
For one thing, he made a play or four.
“Three interceptions and a touchdown,” Smith recalled.
For another, it wasn’t that long ago.
He wasn’t an 8-year-old on a youth team. He wasn’t a 10-year-old playing flag football. He wasn’t a 12-year-old making his debut for his middle-school squad.
Smith was a freshman at Haddonfield High School when he first took the field for a football game. He’s been gaining ground on his late start since that day.
“He’s a special athlete,” Haddonfield coach Frank DeLano said. “He makes big-time plays in big-time situations.”
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Smith is one of the most versatile, valuable players in South Jersey. He makes an impact for Haddonfield as a wide receiver on offense, as a cornerback on defense and as a kick returner on special teams.
He makes his mark at key moments, too. He helped to spark Haddonfield to the South Jersey Group 2 title in 2017 with a big play or two in every postseason game.
“That’s what Coach DeLano preaches — versatility,” Smith said. “He wants everybody to help the team in every way that they can. There’s no ‘me’ guys on this team. Everybody is all about doing whatever they can to help the team.”
Smith’s importance to the team was clear last season. Here’s a statistic: The Bulldawgs were 7-0 in games in which Smith played, and 2-3 in games in which he was sidelined with an injury.
Smith broke his clavicle in a Sept. 23 game against Audubon.
“I knew it right away,” Smith said. “I had the ball in the wrong arm, landed wrong on my shoulder.”
He missed five games, a stretch that included three consecutive losses for the Bulldawgs.
“It was one of the slowest, toughest months of my life,” Smith said. “Just to be sitting out and watching everybody else play, that was tough. And we took a couple ‘Ls’ so that made it worse.”
Initially, Smith was told he would miss the rest of the season. DeLano and his coaches as well as Smith’s teammates were operating under that premise. In a season marked by a number of injuries, the anticipated loss of such a dynamic playmaker for the remainder of the campaign was a spirit-sapper for the Bulldawgs.
“We didn’t know,” DeLano said. “When he came back, it was a big boost for everybody.”
Smith was cleared to play two days before the Nov. 10 playoff opener against rival Sterling, which had beaten Haddonfield, 37-19, on Nov. 4.
That loss was the team’s third in a row entering the state tournament.
“Just to get back out with my boys, it meant everything to me,” Smith said.
It almost was like freshman year all over again. In his first game back on the field, Smith made three catches for 80 yards, twice moving the team into position to score, in a 17-7 win that kick-started a remarkable postseason run.
The next week in the sectional semifinals against Cinnaminson, Smith caught a touchdown pass and lifted an interception. In the sectional title game against West Deptford, Smith made his presence felt as a defender, with a few strong tackles and another interception.
“He’s a kid who just has the knack for making big plays,” DeLano said. “He doesn’t touch the ball a whole lot. We don’t force-feed anybody. But he has that big-play ability. … He returned a punt for a touchdown last year against Holy Cross and it was like a Houdini act.
“We joked that it was coaching but it was him, Houdini-ing his way down the field.”
Smith was a soccer star for most of his youth. He played on high-powered travel squads, including the Philadelphia Union’s junior team.
“I always loved football, but my mom wouldn’t let me play,” Smith said. “She thought it would stunt my growth. When I finally got out there [in freshman year], I loved it.”
Smith has scholarship offers from Air Force, Monmouth and Sacred Heart. He likely will make a college decision during the season and hopes to study forensics with an eye toward a career in law enforcement.
DeLano said Smith, who recently turned 17, is young for his class and just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.
“The sky’s the limit for this kid,” DeLano said. “Some lucky college is going to get him and I don’t know what he’s going to look like in two years, when he fills out.”
Smith also suspects that he has much better days ahead in football, especially since he’s still relatively new to the sport.
“Absolutely,” Smith said. “I’m just getting started.”
South Jersey all-purpose players to watch
Tyreke Brown, Penns Grove senior: The Sacred Heart recruit ran for 526 yards and 12 TDs and caught 43 passes for 1,125 yards and 15 TDs. He also is a top linebacker and plays quarterback at times.
Jada Byers, St. Joseph junior: He’s a running back who gained 1,500 yards as a sophomore, but he’s also a top defensive back and return man who brought back four punts for TDs. He also plays Wildcat quarterback.
Nick Cartwright-Atkins, Moorestown senior: He’s a top wide receiver and defensive back who also excels on the basketball court.
Logan Cruet, Gateway senior: He had five interceptions as a defensive back last season and also caught four touchdown passes as a wide receiver.
Joe Dalsey, Shawnee senior: He’s a wide receiver and running back, a linebacker and defensive end, and a top kicker. He also could play some quarterback this season.
Jaylen DeCoteau, St. Augustine senior: The defensive back is a Kent State recruit. He also is a top receiver who averaged 23 yards per catch last season.
Shaikyi Hannah, Delsea junior: He ran for 483 yards and 6 TDs as a sophomore and made first-team all-National Division as a defensive back.
Wade Inge, Jr., Williamstown senior: The Delaware State recruit is a versatile offensive player, a top defensive back and a return man.
John Meekins, Cinnaminson senior: He lifted four interceptions last season as a defensive back and also generated 310 receiving yards with three touchdowns.
Malachi Melton, Cedar Creek junior: The brother of former player of the year Bo Melton, now at Rutgers, is another dynamic, versatile athlete who can impact the game as a receiver, runner and return man.
Nasir Murray, Willingboro senior: He caught 35 passes last season for 527 yards and 7 TDs. He made 36 tackles on defense. And he returned a punt for a TD.
Jackson McIntyre, Cherokee junior: He was a two-way starter at wide receiver and defensive back as a sophomore for the Chiefs.
Joe McKillop, Washington Twp. senior: He was the team’s MVP as a junior after making 58 tackles, catching 18 passes and running for four TDs.
R.J Moten, Delran junior: He’s a dynamic all-around athlete, a top wide receiver and defensive back and also is a baseball star.
Alex Odom, Kingsway senior: He ran for 142 yards, caught passes for 203 yards and two TDs and was a first-team all-American Division selection as a junior. He also can play quarterback.
Omar Rogers, Burlington Twp. senior: The Elon recruit is a top defensive back who made 82 tackles with four interceptions but also can make plays as a wide receiver and return man.
Craig Yates, Bishop Eustace senior: He had 229 receiving yards, 180 rushing yards, made 55 tackles and returned a punt for a TD as a junior.