Junior quarterback weighing options

12/29/2004 - Utah Utes

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Utah quarterback Alex Smith knows his
prospects as an NFL draft pick can't get much better -- even if he
returns for his final season.

He was a Heisman Trophy finalist, the first in Utah history, and
led the Utes to an 11-0 regular-season record and a Fiesta Bowl
berth. He has also completed two-thirds of his passes while
throwing for 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Smith received his undergraduate degree last spring, so sticking
around for a senior year might not make much sense. He plans to
decide in a couple of weeks.

"Can I improve myself that much? Can I get better over the
year? Can I help my stock? That's kind of what this is going to
come down to," Smith said Wednesday. "Would it be better for me
to leave now? Those are the things that are going to have to get

It will be very difficult for Smith to top this season, although
the same could have been said a year ago when he went 9-1 after
taking over as the starter.

This season, Smith has completed 185 of 280 passes for 2,624
yards and will cap his season Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl against
Pittsburgh. And as the leader of a spread offense that got Utah
into the Bowl Championship Series game, Smith has reluctantly been
the headliner of the "BCS Busters," as the Utes have proudly been
calling themselves this month.

Smith actually laughed off speculation early this fall that this
could be his final college season, but now it doesn't seem so

About the only thing going against Smith is his weight. At
6-foot-4, he's happy when he weighs in at 210 pounds. As much as he
eats and lifts, that's about as heavy as he's been able to get,
despite two years of trying to bulk up from the 180 pounds he
weighed as a freshman.

But if his weight is the only issue, somebody may want Smith
enough for him to leave school early.

"I look at the improvement I made over this last offseason and
just imagine if I can make that same gain where I would be," Smith
said. "Gathering information this last month has kind of been
crazy as well. Who knows?"

Smith petitioned the NFL to see where he would be considered as
an early entrant in the draft, but hasn't received a response yet.
If he's projected as a high enough pick, he will likely enter the
draft and leave the Utes in the hands of Joe Johnson, a freshman
who has played very little as a backup this season.

Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has spent the last
few weeks trying to come up with a plan to stop Smith. He said it
hasn't been easy.

Smith has also rushed for 10 touchdowns and led the Utes to
remarkable scoring efficiency. Of the 63 times the Utes have been
at or inside the opponent's 20-yard line -- excluding three plays in
which they downed the ball at the end of the game -- Utah has scored
58 times, including 51 touchdowns.

"You really gain a huge amount of respect for him the more and
more you watch him," Rhoads said. "He throws the ball with great
velocity and accuracy. He hurts you with his feet. He can make you
miss or run you over. He's a very physical player and that's
demonstrated by the production in his touchdowns."

Utah doesn't have much of a tradition of football players
leaving early for the draft. But Smith could start one. Steve
Savoy, Utah's second-leading receiver with 60 catches for 891 yards
and a team-high 11 touchdowns, is also considering leaving early.

Savoy also may have little to gain by coming back for a senior
season with a new quarterback and new system under incoming
offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Savoy plans to decide shortly
after the Fiesta Bowl.

"It depends on which round I'm going to go and my draft
status," Savoy said. "And also if Alex stays, I might stay with
him. If he decides to leave, then I'll probably have to look at
other options."