Lamont Smith began his collegiate football career at the University of Colorado, but things didn't work out the way he had hoped.
A Central Catholic High School graduate from Penn Hills, Smith took a redshirt as a freshman, then transferred to Phoenix Junior College in Arizona.
After starting one season at Phoenix, Smith was reconsidering his options when he received an unexpected phone call from John Luckhardt, the head coach at California University of Pennsylvania, an NCAA Division II program in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
"I didn't know where I was going," said Smith. "I was starting to stress out about it when I received a phone call from coach Luckhardt. I don't even know how he got my number. But I'm glad he did. His call was a blessing in disguise."
Luckhardt offered Smith a full scholarship to attend California and play for the Vulcans. He jumped at the opportunity to return to Western Pennsylvania.
Smith was penciled in as a defensive back, but that changed two months before the 2010 season began.
"In July, I got a phone call from coach Luckhardt telling me that [starting tailback] Windell Brown was hurt badly in a car accident," Smith said. "It was two weeks before camp began. Coach Luckhardt told me he wanted to move me to running back, and I told him that's what I do best."
Smith was listed as third string when he moved to offense, but quickly moved up the depth chart. He became the Vulcans starter in week two of the 2010 season and has since rushed for 2,279 yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons.
In both seasons, Smith was voted first-team All-PSAC West. He enters his senior year as a preseason honorable mention All-American by the Beyond Sports Network.
But as he enters his final season of college football, things have changed for Smith and his Vulcans teammates. Luckhardt retired following last season after dealing with some health problems.
"It was hard to hear that coach Luckhardt was leaving, but your health must come first," Smith said. "I'll miss his energy and talking to him."
Fortunately, Smith is very familiar with Luckhardt's replacement. Mike Kellar, who had served as the Vulcans offensive coordinator, has taken over and the rest of the coaching staff remains unchanged.
"We couldn't ask for a better situation," Smith said. "Coach Kellar was our offensive coordinator last year, so I'm quite familiar with him and all the coaches. It really helps to have the coaching staff stay together."
In 2010, Smith rushed for 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns on 241 carries in his California debut. He also caught 20 passes for 215 yards.
Last season, Smith rushed for 1,113 yards and five touchdowns on 200 carries. He also caught 33 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
"Lamont is an every-down back who is very dependable," Kellar said. "He's rushed for 1,000 yards each of the last two years. He can get you the first down with tough running or with a long run. He can release out of the backfield and catch the short pass in the flat, or become the primary receiver. He can do it all."
Smith is one of six starters back from an offense that averaged 31.5 points and 429.6 yards yards per game. Also back for the Vulcans is quarterback Peter Lalich, who set a single-season school record and led the PSAC with 3,725 passing yards. He completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 31 touchdowns.
"It's huge to have that quarterback/running back tandem coming back, especially when you have two players of their caliber," said Kellar. "Add Blake Williamson (6-3, 230, Sr.) to the picture and we have three [offensive] players who have been recognized on preseason All-America teams."
Williamson, a Chartiers-Houston High School graduate, is a four-year starter at tight end who has 63 career receptions for 777 yards and eight touchdowns.
"We have high expectations every year," said Smith, when asked how strong the Vulcans would be this season. "We set our standards high. California has a great tradition of football and we want to keep that tradition alive."
As a junior at Central Catholic, Smith rushed the ball 250 times for 2,070 yards and 29 touchdowns. He didn't fare as well as a senior, due to a high ankle sprain. He finished with 990 yards and 13 touchdowns on only 152 carries.
Smith plans to graduate in December with a degree in criminal studies with hopes of becoming a homicide detective.