Jordan Smith had seen the path traveled before. He closely watched Derrick Williams, NaVorro Bowman and Stephon Morris - family friends who, like him, were from the Washington, D.C., area - gather Division I scholarship offers and eventually play for the Nittany Lions. One day, he thought, he might follow in their footsteps.
"He just loved hanging around, seeing those kids and seeing how hard they work - not their talent, not their skill set, but seeing how hard those gentlemen worked," said Roman Morris, father of former Nittany Lion cornerback Stephon Morris. "It rubbed off on him. He always wanted to be around. He always wanted to work."
That willingness to work, the elder Morris said, is what ultimately helped Smith land a Penn State scholarship offer of his own - an offer that Smith accepted the day after one of the darkest days in school history.
Roman Morris is considered a defensive back guru. He and former NFL star Troy Vincent own and operate the PrimeXample defensive back training group in Greenbelt, Md. Williams, Bowman and Morris, along with other NFL and Division I players, trained with Morris during either their high school or college careers.
Smith, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back, is the next player in PrimeXample's Division I lineage. But Roman Morris said initially it wasn't clear whether Smith had the potential to be an elite prospect. Morris suspected he could play at the Division II or Football Championship Subdivision level, but it wasn't until the beginning of his junior season at Archbishop Carroll High - after he had shut down some of the area's top receivers in one-on-one drills - that Morris began to see Smith's Division I potential.
"He would always come up to me and say, 'Coach, I'm gonna be a Lion. I'm gonna come out of that tunnel,'" Morris said. "And I would always say, 'You're gonna be a cub.'
"I would always tease him, but you know what? He continued to work. He evolved, and [now] he's a highly skilled, very smooth, fundamentally and technically sound football player. When you mix that with his work ethic, you've got something."
Smith said he, too, saw a transformation during his junior season.
"I really did notice my body change, and also mentally I changed," he explained. "My technique was a whole lot better, and that came from Coach Rome. And that changed my mentality [because] my technique allowed me to make a lot more plays."
His performance for Archbishop Carroll, coupled with a strong showing at Penn State's summer camp, earned Smith a scholarship offer from the Nittany Lion coaching staff. But there was a catch. The offer arrived on July 24 - barely 24 hours after the NCAA announced unprecedented sanctions against the program.
But even the NCAA's four-year bowl ban couldn't dissuade Smith from choosing Penn State. After all, it was his dream school. So while other prospects were jumping ship and de-committing, Smith verbally committed shortly after receiving his scholarship offer.
"Watching Stephon, Derrick Williams and NaVorro all be around my family and grow up and go [to Penn State], I kind of had a sense of what the school was and what the tradition was like," Smith said. "So it was a no-brainer. This is my dream school."
Smith is one of five Class of 2013 prospects who enrolled early for the spring semester. He hasn't played football since the 2011 season at Archbishop Carroll. He was ruled ineligible by the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association after his transfer to H.D. Woodson in February 2012. Though he wasn't playing under the lights this past fall, Smith said he practiced with his teammates at Woodson and also worked out three days a week with Morris and Vincent at PrimeXample. He said those drills helped prepare him for spring practice and the beginning of his collegiate career.
In fact, he's already requested jersey No. 12 at Penn State - the same number that Stephon Morris wore throughout his career. "So he's already following in Stephon's footsteps," Roman Morris said.