It’s been three years since the last time Cody Smith lined up under center as the starting quarterback of a football team for a full season. That was during his freshman year at Riverhead on the junior varsity.
Through no fault of his own, it’s been a waiting game ever since for Smith, who’s now a senior. As a sophomore, Smith began the year on the JV, before he was quickly called up to varsity as the backup to Ryan Bitzer, who was one year his elder.
For the next two years, Smith served as the understudy to Bitzer, last year’s Division II Most Valuable Player, who helped lead the Blue Waves to a county championship.
After patiently waiting for his opportunity, Smith will finally get his chance this season as the Blue Waves’ starting quarterback.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Smith said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I think we’ll have a good team this year. We’ve been working pretty hard and we’ll go out and maybe surprise some people.”
If not for a player of Bitzer’s caliber ahead of him, Smith could have easily started for the Blue Waves last year, Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. Even as backup last year, Smith delivered when called upon.
He threw a touchdown pass in the Blue Waves’ first game of the season against West Babylon. In a win over Half Hollow Hills West, Smith threw a second-quarter touchdown on a trick play when he took a handoff from Bitzer and found a wide open Quinn Funn for a 41-yard score. In the county championship win over North Babylon, Smith scored on a 1-yard run for the game’s final touchdown.
“He’s a smart, heads-up football player,” Shay said. “He makes the right throws when he has to. He’s a gritty kid, tough kid and he’s a competitor.”
The limited reps Smith got during games was a valuable experience, he said.
“Getting in the moment of the game and just being able to pay attention to the crowd and everything, it helps a lot,” he said.
The role of backup quarterback brings with it inherited responsibilities that go beyond what a typical reserve faces at any other position. During games, Smith would stand next to the coaches and assist with signaling plays. After each offensive series ended, he and Bitzer would discuss what they saw and which changes they could make.
Smith and Bitzer grew up playing football with each other and became good friends. Their relationship off the field made it easier for Smith to work as a reserve.
“The fact that he and Ryan were good friends and could learn from each other helped,” Shay said. “I think [Smith] understood where he was. He had a third-year starting quarterback in front of him and sometimes that happens.”
The Blue Waves will need a big performance from Smith, especially early in the season as they deal with a dearth of running backs. Between injuries and academic eligibility issues, the Blue Waves’ depth has been shriveled heading into the season.
Last year’s workhorse in the running game, Jeremiah Cheatom, has been absent from practice and Shay gave no indications of when he might be back.
Regardless of who’s in the backfield, the Blue Waves will still try to run the ball and set up play-action passes for Smith.
Smith enters the year with a mostly new receiving corps to work with after Funn — the team’s leading receiver — graduated.
Smith said the chemistry on the field is already there with the receivers.
“We have it,” Smith said. “We worked last year, too. That was my group because they had the starting group and then the backup group. And we always worked together.”
The returning receivers did see some time last year, led by Dan Czelatka, Ryan Hubbard and Daren Jefferson.
“They’re all fast and they all have really good hands,” Smith said. “And they’re smart.”
When Smith first started in football he played as a lineman. The next year he switched to running back before finding a home at quarterback by age 10.
Smith begins this year as a one-way player, although he could see some time at safety on defense if necessary.
As Smith takes on the starting quarterback duties, junior Kenny Simco will slide into his role from last year. Simco started on the junior varsity last year. Just as Smith got stuck behind Bitzer, Simco must wait for his turn.
“He’s a great quarterback, too,” Smith said. “It stinks for us because we’re right next to each other. If we were spread out over years, we’d all be in the same boat. But we’re all together.”
“It’s kind of the roles are reversed a little bit,” Shay added. “Cody was the guy that had to wait and now he’s got another guy waiting because of him. He’ll probably sit and watch Cody this year and then next year we’ll have the same conversation.”