STILLWATER — Nearly every step of Maealiuaki Smith’s life has directed him toward being an NFL quarterback.
After an accomplished career at Junipero Serra High School in Northern California, Smith is choosing Oklahoma State as the place to his next step.
Smith, a three-star quarterback and top-ranked recruit in OSU’s 2024 class, per On3. He is the only quarterback in OSU’s class and will join a room that as of now features freshmen Garret Rangel, Zane Flores and senior Alan Bowman.
After a season starting for Inderkum High School in Sacramento as a freshman, Maealiuaki (Pronounced: My-uh-luh-wah-key ) made a grown-up decision. He chose to move two hours southwest from his home in Sacramento to south of San Francisco. He enrolled at Serra, one of the top powers in Northern California high school football. Smith moved in with a teammate’s family and when he wanted to visit home, he had to ride the train.
The move accelerated his career but uprooted him from his family. Smith’s Polynesian heritage contributes to a tight-knit family bond which is important to him along with faith.
“He’s just really dialed in and focused and he’s going to do whatever it takes to get closer to his dreams,” said Danny Hernandez, his private quarterback coach..
Smith also spent nights in Hernandez’ spare room, so he could hone his craft. Hernandez works with QB Collective, a development pipeline for high school quarterbacks that connects them with NFL coaches like the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan and Miami Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel.
At camps, Smith learned from those coaches who teach footwork, technique and offensive concepts to the advanced proteges.
The moving, working and sweating under the California sun have kept Smith on track for his goal.
“He has a long-term vision about what he wants,” Serra coach Patrick Walsh said. “And he has a strong belief and a vision to be an NFL quarterback and to do that, the road isn’t always a straight arrow like it is for some. And for most, it’s not a straight arrow.”
A stoic, Barry Sanders-type of leader
The game that elevated Smith’s recruiting profile was televised nationwide on ESPNU.
Serra’s season opener in 2022, Smith’s junior season, was against De La Salle. Serra trailed 21-7 in the fourth quarter, a familiar plight against La Salle, a rival it had never beaten. Smith led back-to-back touchdown drives to tie the game and led another drive that set up a game-winning field goal with five seconds left.
It was a historic moment for the school and a game that changed Smith’s life, but Walsh wouldn’t have known it from the look on Smith’s face.
“He’s got the best poker face you’ll ever see,” Walsh said. “He throws a touchdown, looks the same. Throws a pick, looks the same. Playing on national TV? Same demeanor. And that’s what I really really love about him. He’s pretty unflappable.”
Smith isn’t usually animated with his emotions on the sideline or fiery after a big play. He leads differently, with a level head and eternally calm demeanor. He’s humble. Walsh said Smith will show his emotions, but when he does they are measured, on point and impactful.
Does that ring a bell, Cowboys fans? Walsh called a Barry Sanders comparison “epic.”
“I think the reference to his humble demeanor is spot on, so people in Stillwater can understand that,” Walsh said. “Now, hopefully, the production is the same, and if that happens we got a future star there in Stillwater.”
A hybrid quarterback with a lion mentality
Hernandez didn’t drop Smith directly into the pocket passer or dual-threat bucket, because Smith can extend plays with his legs and still possess tremendous arm strength.
In 2022, Smith passed for 2,781 yards and 34 touchdowns, both single-season school records, blowing out the 2,121 yards and 20 touchdowns Tom Brady, Serra’s most famous graduate, threw for in 1994.
“I think (OSU is) getting a very well-rounded quarterback,” Hernandez said. “He has the size, high football IQ and he’s able to make every throw.”
Entering a crowded quarterback room isn’t new to Smith. He did the same thing his sophomore season at Serra when he transferred in knowing the Padres already had a senior at the position. Smith took over the starting role his junior year.
“He sat on the bench his entire sophomore year, basically, and learned and showed patience and diligence,” Walsh said.
But there’s a warning that comes with that. Don’t mistake his humble and willing-to-learn approach for a player content to stay in the shadows. Back to the comeback victory against De La Salle.
In the third quarter, as the Padres were still looking for footing, Smith absorbed a vicious sack from Cooper Flanigan, now a Notre Dame tight end. Flanigan was unblocked off the edge; his 6-foot-5, 200-plus pound frame sent Smith’s helmet flying off his head before he even hit the ground.
Walsh said he thought Smith was knocked out of the game — until he looked him in the eyes. Smith, with a speck of blood on his lip, told his coach to leave him in the game. After checking with a doctor, Walsh put him back in. On the drive, Smith passed to convert two fourth downs and threw a 3-yard touchdown to ignite the comeback.
“One of the mantras that we really have at Serra and something that I really dove into with Maealiuaki was this idea of lions not sheep,” Walsh said. “And in that moment, Maealiuaki showed what it means to be a lion.”