QB's numbers questioned because of competition

Updated: December 7, 2004, 11:51 AM ET
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- So much has changed in Alex Smith's life the past two years, he's still trying to sort through it all.

He's gone from being a frustrated freshman considering a transfer to leading Utah into college football's elite as the first team from a mid-major conference to play in the Bowl Championship Series. The next stop on his meteoric rise could be New York for Saturday's Heisman Trophy presentation.

He'll find out Wednesday if he's a finalist in a tightly contested race that is sure to leave at least a couple viable candidates out of the mix.

"People ask me if I want to win the Heisman. Of course I'd love to. But I just want to go," the junior quarterback said. "I think the experience would be great. It's something not too many people get to go to in their life."

Smith's statistics are as good as any quarterback's, but those numbers get called into question because of the quality of competition in the Mountain West Conference. So his 28 touchdown passes to four interceptions and 2,624 passing yards seem to carry an asterisk. Despite completing 66 percent of his passes and rushing for 10 touchdowns, he's still considered a long shot to win the Heisman.

But by guiding the fifth-ranked Utes to an 11-0 season and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, he just may make the cut and get the trip to New York -- which surprises Smith as much as anybody.

"I didn't know how I compared to other quarterbacks. I didn't know how much publicity we were going to get. That was the part that was so shocking to me. It's still shocking to me right now," Smith said. "When you're an athlete at Utah, you've had that mind-set for a long time because you probably didn't get recruited by big schools."

If Smith does go, he may be sitting with an old friend. Southern California running back Reggie Bush was one year behind Smith at Helix High School outside San Diego and could also be a Heisman finalist.

"He took a much more direct route," Smith said of the dazzling Bush.

Smith wasn't widely recruited and ended up at Utah, where he spent a discouraging first semester under former coach Ron McBride. He was thrown in two games late in the season as the Utes tried to snap out of a six-game losing streak, losing a year of eligibility.

Smith was so disheartened he thought about transferring if McBride stayed. McBride was fired after the season, so Smith decided he would see who was taking over. When he found out it was Urban Meyer from Bowling Green, he wasn't quite sure what to think.

"Honestly, when they announced it, I didn't know who he was and I had been following it pretty closely," he said.

That was two years ago this month and was a bigger turning point in Smith's life than he knew. Smith battled upperclassmen Brett Elliott and Lance Rice through spring practice as all three tried to grasp Meyer's spread offense.

As the youngest of the bunch, Smith said he got the most attention.

"Everything I did was wrong and we were going to change it," Smith said. "My release was too slow so we've got to speed that up. We're going to change how you throw the ball. We're going to put 30 lbs. on you. You're too small. We've got to get you faster. ..."

Meyer did succeed in getting Smith a little bigger. At 6-feet-4, he was only about 180 pounds when Meyer took over. He weighs in around 210 now, still a little on the light side, but he can only eat and lift so much.

Learning the offense was a bigger challenge.

"He's gone from being a third-string quarterback to the best in college football," said Meyer, who accepted the coaching job at Florida last week. "I still believe that. I know some of these other guys are starting to put up some numbers, but I still believe Alex is as good as anybody in the country."

Smith didn't take over until the third game of the 2003 season. Elliott had broken his wrist, leaving Smith as the starter against California. Smith completed 18-of-28 passes and rushed for a touchdown in his starting debut, a 31-24 win over the Bears.

"That's when things really started to make sense to me as far as understanding the offense. Things clicked as far as what we were trying to do," Smith said. "All of a sudden, I was like, 'OK, I kind of get this.' Everything slowed down for me."

As for this season, there's still the Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh.

"This is like, the season's not done," Smith said. "We still have something to prove."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press