Alex not just another, ordinary Smith

Updated: September 3, 2004, 1:11 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

It's easy to get lost in the big, bright, bawdy world of college football. Especially when you have the generic name of Alex Smith and you play in the land that hype forgot, the Mountain Time Zone.

But it's time to recognize the quarterback of the Utah Utes. What he lacks in name and fame, he makes up for in game, brain and bloodlines.

He is the son of a high school principal, the nephew of a big-time Division I-A coach and the descendant of a prolific polygamist. He was on skis at age 2, but wasn't allowed inside a football helmet until eighth grade. He's an academic stud who piled up advanced-placement credits coming out of high school, completing work on his Economics degree in two years. He's also allergic to interceptions and is packing a 9-1 record as a starter at Utah.

Nothing boring about any of that.

Tonight Smith will be the leading man for a team hoping to burst out of Rocky Mountain shadows and into Bowl Championship Series klieg lights. The Utes host Texas A&M at 7:30 ET on ESPN.

"It's a new step for this team," Smith said. "We're coming into this with a lot of excitement."

It would be inaccurate to say that Utah is anonymous nationally. The Utes wouldn't be ranked No. 19 if that were the case, and Urban Meyer wouldn't be wearing that Hot Coach tag on his lapel. But there are miles to go before this program hits the Gridworld marquee.

Exhibit A: Meyer was the Maytag repairman of this week's Mountain West Conference teleconference, taking just one call.

Exhibit B: Smith, who was more accurate last year than USC's Matt Leinart and had a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than Oklahoma's Jason White, is ranked No. 19 in one preseason magazine's list of the nation's top 20 quarterbacks, behind guys from Connecticut, Akron, Vanderbilt, Toledo and Tulsa.

Nothing against those QBs, who face their own lack-of-pub issues. But at least one interested observer, A&M coach Dennis Franchione, likes what he sees on film of Smith.

"He's certainly a winner and a heady young man," Franchione said. "He seems very poised, never gets very rattled."

That judgment was based on last year, when Smith was an utter unknown. After throwing four passes as a true freshman for a 5-6 team, he began his sophomore season caddying for starter Brett Elliott. Then Elliott was hurt in a two-point loss to, coincidentally, Texas A&M. Smith found himself starting the next game, on ESPN against California.

He never left the lineup, guiding the Utes to a surprising 10-2 season, MWC title and Liberty Bowl victory over Southern Mississippi. Smith was an efficiency machine, completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,247 yards, with 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Surprisingly mobile for a guy standing 6-foot-4, he also ran for 452 yards and five TDs.

Elliott, who apparently knows a Wally Pipp situation when he sees it, transferred to a Division III school during the offseason. This is Alex Smith's offense, and his time to shine.

"It's a little strange," Smith said. "Obviously, I've come a long way in a year."

He's come a long way since junior high, when his father, Doug, finally let him play football. This is unheard of in today's warp-drive world of child athletic development, where mouthpieces sometimes serve as de facto pacifiers. But it hardly constituted arrested development for Alex.

Doug Smith was not opposed to the game -- he played in college at Weber State with his big brother, John L. Smith, and coached high school ball for many years. He simply didn't want his son burned out on the sport too early.

"For Alex it became something that was fresh, and he was excited about it," said Doug Smith, principal at Helix High School in La Mesa, Calif. "And he entered it when he was physically able to enjoy it."

Football had actually been something of a pleasant diversion for Doug Smith and his brothers while growing up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The family tree was densely branched in that area a few generations back, thanks to a forebear who allegedly had three wives and 20 children, but in later years they were known for different reasons. The Smiths were a brood of tough cowboy kids who could ride horses, rope calves and kick your tail in a variety of sports.

Growing up on a rough-and-tumble ranch, they did enough rugged physical labor on a daily basis that blocking and tackling was a breeze.

"From an early age you had to learn to put up with aches and pains and bumps, and still get up and do what you needed to do," Doug Smith said. "That was just work ethic. My kids get tired of me talking about that."

The work ethic was passed down, and so was the family's first avocation, skiing. Not even relocating from the Rockies to sunny SoCal during Alex's youth has dampened his passion for powder.

Now Alex can take on the nastiest slopes the Rockies have to offer, and loves shredding the hills outside the family's condominium in Big Sky, Mont., on his snowboard.

"He's gone over to the dark side," lamented Doug, a skiing purist.

Going to Utah has kept Alex knee-deep in snow -- during the offseason only, coaches' orders -- but it wasn't his ideal school choice. In high school he wanted to go to Louisville to play for his uncle, John L.

"That was a dream for him," Doug Smith said.

But John L.'s star was on the rise at Louisville by the time Alex was a senior at Helix, and he told his nephew there was no guarantee he'd be his coach for four years. Sure enough, John L. was gone a year later to Michigan State.

"He told me he wasn't going to be there," Alex said. "He was honest with me. He was really the only reason I wanted to go there, and there were so many things I liked about Utah and the team that it was a good choice for me."

It's all worked out perfectly since then, in the classroom and on the field. And if this season unfolds according to hopes and dreams, Alex Smith of Utah could be one of the sexiest names in the game.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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