When Geron Stokes was hired by Dublin Coffman High School to be their new head football coach back in March of 2021, he quickly began the process of learning about his team.
One of the players that Stokes already had some familiarity with was defensive lineman Will Smith, Jr. That familiarity, however, was only cursory and was based mostly on Stokes’ knowledge of Smith’s father Will, who was a former Ohio State All-American and National Champion, and whose life was tragically cut short in 2016.
Knowing only that portion of the story, Stokes wanted to learn more about his young player.
“I knew of his dad’s story. I knew he was one of our better players,” Stokes told Buckeye Huddle. “So I immediately said, ‘Hey, Will, you need to come in a little bit early to lifting and I want to hear your story.’ And I had zero expectations of the type of kid that I was going to interact with. I listened to his story about his mom, his grandma, and dad, and stepfamily. I listened to his story and just in the way he tells it and how genuinely he comes across. He’s a special, unique kid that loves the heck out of his family and honors the heck out of his dad. There’s a lot of good people that have poured into him, and they’ve done a really good job, too.”
The conversation quickly left an indelible mark on Stokes, who has countless stories that he can recite of his time with Smith.
“Super kid. Honestly, one of the best kids I’ve ever interacted with from a character standpoint,” he said. “Very quiet, soft spoken, but an extremely hard worker. Like I immediately go, ‘Man, this is this is one of the coolest kids I’ve ever been around in my life.’ He’s incredible off the field. Yeah, his character is unquestioned.”
Character being what it is, the fact remains that Smith’s ability to play football is what landed him at Ohio State. But it wasn’t easy.
Smith was seen by colleges as too small. Some of them wrote him off even as a sophomore. Stokes knew he had a good player on his hands, but he learned more and more each day about the drive that Smith possessed.
“He was pretty raw in the weight room when we got here. But it was cool, because I saw him work and saw how he carried himself,” he said. “And all these colleges were coming in and saying, ‘Eh, he’s small…’ and he weighed 235 pounds, and I’d say, ‘Guys, have you seen how hard he plays? You guys can’t measure the ceiling of this kid because you’re not looking at his heart.’
“It was really cool for me to sit and watch these college guys say he’s too small, like ‘I don’t know, Coach, I don’t know.’ And then him completely change everybody’s mind. So I didn’t know he was that special right off the jump. But when you reflect back on anything, like people with extremely high character and incredible work ethic, they usually tend to be pretty elite people.”
Smith’s first offers began rolling in during his junior season. Miami (OH), Marshall, Illinois, Duke, and West Virginia extended scholarship offers in September and October.
The offer from Ohio State came that January. Smith committed nine days later. It was the culmination of months and months of planning and work from Smith and his mother Kerry Monahan. And when the offer from Ohio State came, and then the commitment, Stokes was just as happy as Smith and his mom.
“I was jacked up out of my mind because he and his mom came in before the offseason and said, ‘Okay, this is what we want to do. How do we get there?'” Stokes recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, okay, let’s talk. You’re 235 pounds.’ They wanted him to be like 260-265 by such-and-such date. He wanted to spend more time working on his craft, so he found a guy to work on his craft with.
“I said you’re gonna have to train like crazy. Lifting. You’re gonna have to eat. You have to do speed and agility. He went and did speed and agility. He went and did individual position group work. He lifted like crazy for us. That is why you coach football, right? To see kids pour into something because they want something, and then they get it because of their work.”
Will Smith, Jr. enrolled early at Ohio State this past winter and checked in prior to spring ball at 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds. It was a far cry from the 235 pounds he weighed when colleges dismissed him without even giving him a chance.
“It was cool listening to all these colleges say ‘He can’t, he’s too small, Coach,'” Stokes said. “And then when Ohio State offered, even some of the other schools were like ‘I just don’t see it, Coach, I just don’t see it.’ I’m like, ‘You guys are morons.’ You’re looking at the kid underneath the pads. You need to go underneath the pads and underneath the skin and go to the heart. This kid’s got something inside of him that you can’t measure.”
Smith showed the kind of drive that doesn’t just come from a first name or last name. It comes from somewhere much deeper, and with plenty of help. While people may be familiar with Will Smith, Jr. because of his father, his mother has been a constant.
“Mom and Grandma and Grandpa. Again, there’s a lot there,” Stokes said. “Any time you get a kid as humble and who has all of the positive traits, he’s had a ton of people pour into him. Mom’s a beast. You can tell she’s done everything she can to help him. There’s a huge support system there for him.”
All of it helped steer Smith to Ohio State, where not only can he honor his father, but he can do it in front of those who mean the most to him.
“That was family,” Stokes said of OSU’s draw. “Not only Dad’s legacy, but the rest of his family is in this area. Mom’s 25 minutes away. I think Will has one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen. He cares about people, and I think that mattered in is decision.”
It has also served as motivation.
“I think there’s a lot. I think, yeah, the family piece. Dad. Wanting to be the best. Not the best, wanting to be his best,” Stokes said. “He’s got a different level of drive there that people can’t measure.”
Stokes calls Smith a quiet leader, but when he needs to speak, he is heard. Mostly, however, he leads by example.
“He has a quiet demeanor about him,” Stokes said. “But the guys love him. He’s ‘Billy Smith’ to us, and everybody loves Billy.”
Smith was a limited participant for the Buckeyes in practice this spring due to an injury, but he will be full go this season.
It isn’t easy for true freshmen to get much time on an Ohio State defensive line, but “easy” has never been part of Smith’s plan. You can expect the work to continue with OSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson, and for the effort to never wane.
“He plays as hard as anybody we’ve had play. His motor and effort is off the charts,” Stokes said. “His power in his hips — he plays behind his hips really well. He’s got to keep getting better with technique. He’s gonna get stronger. He already weighed 295 pounds this spring. He’s going to keep getting stronger. Larry is just gonna continue to get him to perfect his craft. He’s gonna maximize every bit of potential he has.”
‘Legacy’ can be a heavy word. It carries with it past, present, and future. For some, it can be an unbearable weight. It’s a burden that drags them down. For others, it’s a driving force. It carries them forward when nothing else will. It’s a push or a pull, whichever is needed.
It can also be a gift — both received and given. It can weave generations together, bringing them closer than the years that separate them.
Stokes spent a little less than two years coaching Smith, but he learned exactly what legacy meant to him.
“I’ll lose with that kid any day of the week,” he said. “Those are the types of kids that are super easy to root for. I’ve said it all along, okay, so what if he can’t play at Ohio State? He’s still gonna maximize his potential. People can measure people based on the outcomes. We don’t do that. I’m gonna measure based off of people’s work ethic and character, and Will’s gonna maximize whatever genetic potential he has.”