Dante Smith Jr. spent years as a child begging his parents to allow him to play tackle football, but they wouldn’t budge.
The youngest of four kids, his mother, Marie, was afraid of the injuries that could follow as a result of him playing. She allowed him to play flag football in junior high school, but it wasn’t the same. Finally, as he entered his freshman year at Desert Ridge, she gave in.
“I’m not ashamed to say this, he’s my favorite kid and I didn’t want to see him get hurt,” Marie said, laughing. “He never gave up and asked me every year. When he got into high school, he got much bigger over that summer and I told him we would give it a shot.
“He loved the sport and took to it well and I realized this was his passion and what he wanted to do. Now, I love it.”
Dante said her allowing him to play helped him discover his passion for the game.
“She used to not let me go outside or anything, I would just run around the house,” Dante said. “But she let me get into it and that helped me realize the sport I really loved and that’s football.”
Now preparing for his senior season, Dante has become a force to be reckoned with on the offensive and defensive lines in just two years.
Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock expressed interest in moving Dante up to the varsity level while he was still a freshman. When he became a sophomore, the move became official.
At 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, Dante has now become Desert Ridge’s best interior player. He squats 540 pounds but admits he can likely do more. He also benches 365 and power cleans 319. Hathcock believes he will improve even more with former Skyline coach Angelo Paffumi now coaching the defensive line.
Beyond football, Dante is also one of the top wrestlers in the state in his weight class. He placed second in state this year.
“He’s one of those kids where he just doesn’t get tired,” Hathcock said. “This is a kid who ran a 4.81 40 (yard dash) at least three times in the spring. He’s the most explosive guy I’ve had since Nick Allen.”
Hathcock has coached his fair share of talented linemen during his tenure at Desert Ridge. He oversaw the development of DJ Davidson, who now plays for Arizona State. He also helped develop Alex Barrett, who signed with San Diego State out of high school and now plays for the San Francisco 49ers.
Dante draws comparison to Barrett in Hathcock’s eyes. Both are considered undersized for their position. Hathcock believes if Dante was 6-foot-4 he would have colleges from all over the country after him.
Hathcock said the two also compare based on their overall skill level and determination to improve.
“Trust me when I say that I don’t think this about a lot of guys,” Hathcock said, “but I truly believe Dante is up there with guys like Barrett in terms of being able to make it to the NFL. He’s got that drive in him and I can see him making an impact at the highest level.”
Dante said it’s an honor to be compared to one of the best players to ever come out of Desert Ridge.
“Alex Barrett had it all,” Dante said. “He worked for everything he’s accomplished and I’m still in the process of doing that. I just have to keep my eyes on the prize and that’s becoming the best I can be.”
Dante accounted for 57 total tackles last season as a junior, nine of which were tackles for loss. He also accounted for four sacks, third-most on the team behind seniors Colton Weir and Joquarri Price, who signed with UCLA.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Dante’s offseason has consisted of online schoolwork, home workouts and conversations with colleges. His first offer came during the middle of the season from Northern Colorado, with the second having come back in February from New Mexico, which has made a push as of late for Arizona players.
Since then, he’s received offers from Northern Arizona, Abilene Christian, New Mexico State, South Dakota State and North Dakota. He, along with his family and Hathcock anticipate more offers to come next year, especially from power-five programs. But he hasn’t focused too much on what is to come after his high school career is finished.
Instead, he’s been determined to become more of a vocal leader for his teammates and making the most of his senior year.
“Since I’ve been on varsity, I’ve learned what it takes to be a leader and take control of the team,” Dante said. “I just try to lead by example and help my teammates if they’re doing something wrong.
“I’m excited. This is my last year with all my brothers and I can’t wait to get into it one more time.”
Seeing Dante thrive on the football field has been a welcoming sight for Marie. While she still has some fear of him getting injured, she knows his future in the sport is bright.
“It feels amazing to see his passion and drive for the game,” Marie said. “In all honesty, if he didn’t get a scholarship, that is something we would be willing to pay for. We would work two jobs if we had to.
“We believe in his drive to get to the NFL and we want to help get him there by all means necessary.”