- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
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As an assistant coach and head coach at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, Raul Lara has seen more than his share of talented football players. Willie McGinest, DeSean Jackson, Marcedes Lewis, Winston Justice, Jurrell Casey, Manuel Wright, Darnell Bing, Samie Parker, Kareem Kelly and Derrick Jones have all passed through the halls as Jackrabbits during Lara's tenure.
It's probably fitting that in Lara's final season as head coach of the Jackrabbits, he was able to go out with a player who has the potential to turn into the best that Poly has ever produced.
John Smith's game is as diverse and electric as his name isn't. Though, that was taken care of rather quickly, as Smith became JuJu at an early age -- a nickname bestowed upon him by his aunt after John John refused to take.
Now, Smith has accomplished enough at the high school level that JuJu has made its way into the lexicon of virtually every football fan in Southern California. And now college football fans are hoping that JuJu finds his way onto their school's roster this fall. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound athlete is the nation's No. 38 prospect overall and its No. 3 prospect in the athlete category, holding offers from Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, USC and just about every school in between.
"JuJu is a special guy," Lara said. "I've coached a lot of guys who are in the NFL now, but he's unique. He's a true athlete. He could play receiver or defensive back. He could play linebacker; he did play running back for me. He played some tight end for me. And everywhere he plays, he excels."
Lara credits Smith's combination of size, speed and football instincts for his ability to succeed at a number of positions. But that success might also stem from a less obvious place.
Growing up, Smith took part in Pop Warner football, but he also played rugby thanks to his Polynesian background. In fact, rugby -- as well as a strict adherence to church every Sunday -- kept Smith off the camp circuit and 7-on-7 fields in each offseason until he finally made an appearance this past spring following a junior season that established Smith as one of the top prospects in the country.
It wasn't until the fifth game of the season that Smith began taking reps in the defensive backfield. He was stuck behind three future Pac-12 receivers as a sophomore and was contributing only on offense on team that started his junior year 1-3. That's when Lara stepped in to make significant changes on both sides of the ball, not the least of which was letting Smith give safety a shot.
"He fell in love with it," Lara said of Smith playing defense. "It was kind of like rugby, where he could freelance and roam around a lot. He wasn't locked down like at wide receiver, where if he's asked to run a curl, he has to run a curl. At defensive back, as long as he lined up right, he had a lot of freedom. When we made the change and he played it more and more, he fell in love with it. It just naturally suited him because of all the training with rugby."
Smith grew to the point where, though he was recruited for both sides of the ball by virtually every school that offered him, he felt more comfortable at safety and believed that was what suited him best for the long term. Smith was one of the offensive stars in an early season win over Corona (Calif.) Centennial, a significant upset. Smith shone at tailback and even as a Wildcat quarterback, but it was his safety play that stood out to opposing coach Matt Logan.
"He was just so effective defensively against us," said Logan, who became another coach to marvel at Smith's versatility. "I knew he was a great athlete and knew what a great player he was on defense, but I was a little surprised how effective he was on offense and their utilization of him on offense.
"I think he has great potential to maybe reach the NFL because he can play multiple spots. That's what makes him so attractive."
But it's also what Smith does outside the lines that makes him such a prized recruit.
One of seven children -- he has five younger siblings -- Smith took it upon himself to grow up at an early age, chipping in with chores and babysitting duties as well as anything else that would support the family. Smith's teammate, Iman Marshall -- a similarly prized recruit in the 2015 class -- said the added responsibilities at home or pressure of dealing with the recruiting process never sent Smith off course.
"He can be a goofy guy off the field, always cracking jokes and smiling," Marshall said. "His aura is very positive and he knows how to bring a great attitude. I love him as a person... He really separated his football life from his personal life. He understood the balance and kept that away from the team. We really, as a team, didn't get to see him worry about his personal problems."
Marshall said he hopes to emulate much of what Smith shared with the Poly team this season.
"Playing alongside him, I saw how he took on that leadership -- not through words but through actions," Marshall said. "His high motor, playing with a sense of urgency each and every play. That's what I learned from him. He loves the game. I see it every time I line up with him -- I see how passionate he is."
And for the program that lands Smith, who has taken official visits to Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon and will visit USC officially on Jan. 17, it will be easy to see where that passion comes from -- provided there are enough tickets to go around at home games.
"His family cheering section runs about 50 people at least -- probably much bigger than that," Lara said of a group that regularly brought #TeamJuJu signs and made themselves heard from opening kick to final snap. "You know they're there because they are loud and cheering a lot. He's got a big family."
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