Aaron Barnett first remembers seeing the new kid in his study hall class. He was big and sort of burly, a thick-framed sophomore who had arrived from Colorado. The kid was 6 feet 2 then. Maybe weighed 235 pounds. And for Barnett, a head high school football coach, it was the kind of thing you don't miss.
You might say Will Smith walked into the right class.
It was the spring of 2010, the second semester at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, and Smith was a transplant from Fort Collins, Colo., who showed up late in the school year. Each day, during study hall, Barnett would learn a little more about his new student. Smith had never played organized team sports at any level. He worked close to full time at a burger place in addition to school. And he took his academics seriously.
"He just seemed like a real good kid," Barnett says.
Soon enough, the coach had an idea.
'You're going to play football for me," Smith recalls Barnett saying. "I was like: 'OK.'"
More than five years later, Barnett remembers the story a little differently. Maybe it was just the educator in him, he says, but he wanted to help Smith fit into a new school. Every kid needs a niche somewhere, Barnett says. And he had no idea if the kid would ever do anything on a football field.
Then again, his size was intriguing.
"As a football coach, you're never going to turn away a big kid," Barnett says, laughing.
More than five years later, it's clear Barnett was onto something. Smith, who graduated from SM Northwest in 2012 and spent 2 1/2 years at Butler County Community College, is now an offensive lineman at Kansas, competing for a place on the depth chart as a juco transfer.
Smith, who is listed at 6 feet 3 and 327 pounds, has joined an offensive-line group that is heavy on newcomers and short on game experience. To this point in preseason camp, senior Keyon Haughton has taken first-team snaps at center, and senior Larry Mazyck and junior Jordan Shelley-Smith are in solid position at the tackle spots. But there is opportunity at guard, where Smith played for two seasons at juco power Butler County.
KU offensive-line coach Zach Yenser said this week that juco transfer D'Andre Banks and senior Bryan Peters have impressed on the interior of the line. Smith remains slightly behind, Yenser says, because he missed all of spring practice with a shoulder injury.
"Fall camp was his spring practice," Yenser said. "He worked his butt off in the summer, and he's one of our stronger guys. He's a smart guy. He gets it. I think it's just an adjustment to the speed of the game."
For now, no matter his role, Smith is just happy to be at Kansas, playing college football 35 minutes from his old home. It's the kind of perspective, he says, that comes after not even playing a down of football until his junior year of high school.
It wasn't just football, of course. Smith says he never played much of anything. He did take some gymnastics lessons when he was little, but for the most part, Smith was more interested in eclectic pursuits.
"My family is not a really big athletic family," Smith says. "And I was a skate-boarder, paint-baller; I liked fishing. I was always just preoccupied with other things."
When Smith finally joined the football program at SM Northwest, Barnett says the coaching staff focused on taking it slow. He played defensive line that first year, and Smith worked on mastering one skill at a time. In some ways, though, he was suited for the game.
"I guess I had a lot of pent-up frustration," Smith says, smiling. "It was fun to let that out."
After playing two years at SM Northwest, Smith drew interest from some Division II and FCS programs, but he opted to sign with Butler County, where he could learn from then head coach Troy Morrell, one of the most respected juco coaches in the country. Smith went to work on his body, adding pounds to his then 6-foot-3 frame and drilling on his offensive-line technique.
"His ceiling might have been a little bit higher than most kids," Barnett says, "because I knew he was going to improve a lot when he went to junior college."
These days, that ceiling has continued to rise. Smith remains hopeful he can make an impact during his time at Kansas. But for the second time, he is taking it slow and waiting his turn.
"He's the kind of kid you like to spend your afternoons around," Barnett says. "I think all of our coaches on our coaching staff would echo that."