Junior quarterback weighing options

Updated: December 29, 2004, 10:36 PM ET
Associated Press

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 weighed."

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 outrageous.

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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press