The Trojan is the first freshman to start at ILB since 1978.
LOS ANGELES – In the same tunnel leading from the locker rooms to the Coliseum playing turf, Cam Smith strolls out in a fresh pair of Air Jordan XI. His black-and-red shoes walk on the same path where, four hours earlier, he carried onto the field the legacy of Trojans before him.
Smith's old-school Jordans, first released in 1995, weren't the only piece of throwback fashion he donned Saturday, the night of his USC debut. The freshman took the field in the No. 35, a jersey passed among especially tenacious linebackers from the late 1970s into the '90s.
Saturday marked a major milestone in the history of No. 35, with Smith starting at inside linebacker. He's the first Trojan freshman to do so since Riki Ellison (then Riki Gray), the man who started the 35 tradition in 1978.
“Cam is a natural playmaker at that position,” said head coach Steve Sarkisian, who hand-picked Smith to bring back the No. 35 tradition and gave him the historic starting nod Saturday. “He's a heady guy, got a good feel for the game, a solid tackler and he's probably a better athlete than people think.”
Smith demonstrated just such qualities with seven tackles, which tied for the team lead, and a pass breakup. It was a good, old-fashioned, all-around outing like previous 35s Ellison, Scott Ross or Jeff Kopp may have had.
Smith also was a more-than-capable replacement for Hayes Pullard, the Trojans' starter at inside linebacker the previous four seasons. Pullard was a stalwart of the USC defense, but even he had to grow into manning the middle of the corps. He started as a Will linebacker in 2011, his redshirt freshman campaign.
For Smith to start in the middle as a true freshman was truly a special accomplishment — and a milestone he learned of in a way none of his forerunners could.
“I saw a tweet about that,” he said.
OK, so not everything about Smith is a throwback. His exploits get immediate love his predecessors didn't thanks to Twitter, and Smith's handle @CamSC35 is sure to blow up with mentions as he continues to make plays.
The only one he might like to have back is his batted-down pass. After snagging several interceptions in offseason scrimmages, he had an opportunity to record his first official pick as a Trojan, and possibly walk into the end zone.
“He's not going to hear the end of it from my mouth,” teammate Su'a Cravens said with a sly grin. The preseason All-American Cravens made his own interception Saturday.
“He told me he was going to get a pick. He had his chance, and he dropped it,” Cravens added. “Can't drop those.”
Smith agreed. “I wish I would have had it back for my own sake," he said. "It's tough, but at least I got my hands on it and it was incomplete.
“But yeah, I'm definitely going to hear about it.”
Requisite teasing aside, Cravens has been one of Smith's most vocal supporters since the offseason. Cravens singled him out as the most impressive defensive freshman during the spring.
Smith's decision to graduate a semester early from Granite Bay (Calif.) High School, helped smooth the linebacker's transition from 4-star prospect to Week 1 starter.
“Coming in early was the right move,” he said, mentioning academics as well as football. “Having a semester under my belt feels good. I feel like I'm a step ahead.”
Smith's one step ahead was his first down the Coliseum tunnel. He'll take several more noteworthy steps in his USC career, and do so with old-school panache.