Smoker, still under suspension, went through spring practice getting reps with the third team. He reported for training camp in August stuck at No. 3. "And he didn't act like anything but a third-stringer," says Harker. Except that he was devouring the spread offense. He was also staying clean—undergoing regular drug testing and ceaseless monitoring by teammates and friends. On Aug. 12 Smith reinstated him. A week later, following the last preseason scrimmage, Smith named Smoker the starter.
Only once did Smoker address his drug problems with the entire team. After an early preseason practice, when the Spartans came together in a scrum before leaving the field, Smoker asked for quiet. "Guys, I messed up last year," he said. "I'm trying to do whatever it takes to get back. I want to help this team win." There was applause and there were shouts. What Smoker had said to Goebel in the spring was more telling: "I just want one more chance."
Michigan State has emerged as one of the true surprises of the fall. Only a non-league loss to Louisiana Tech, in which Smoker missed the second half with an injury, keeps the Spartans out of the Top 5 in the nation. Smith has taken Williams's team and motivated it with old standbys: emotion, discipline and selflessness. He had the superstars' murals removed from the stadium and replaced with giant representations of generic Spartans. Nobody has jersey number 1, previously worn by star receivers such as Rogers and Andre Rison. Smith dotted the locker room and meeting areas with signs bearing phrases Such as PLAY HARD, PLAY FAST, P.Y.A.O.! "It's like somebody came in and flipped a light switch," says junior linebacker Ronald Stanley.
Nobody has contributed more to the sudden climb than Smoker, who has thrown 169 straight passes without a pick. "He's playing sensational quarterback," says Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, whose team Smoker shredded in a 44-38 Michigan State victory on Oct. 18. "He's accurate, he throws a catchable ball, and he's gotten that system down real quickly." Fans wear Smoker's number 9 jersey and wait hours after games for his autograph.
In many ways Smoker is a child again, playing in the yard back in Manheim. Yet his innocence is long gone, replaced by a worldly humility. Addiction is part of his life, forever. He visits a counselor every week and regularly attends 12-step meetings. "You wouldn't believe the people I see in meetings," he says. "People who were way higher up in life than I was and lost everything." On Saturday nights after games he eats a quiet dinner with his parents, who drive up for the weekend. He is a year and a half from graduating with a degree in psychology, and the future looks bright. There will be a bowl game this season, and beyond that a chance at playing in the NFL.
Yet for Smoker there is only the sweet taste of today. "The most important day of my life," he says. "Then tomorrow. If I start looking beyond that, I get into trouble." Today, then. Sunrises, touchdowns and a fresh start.