On his first college play, against San Diego State in 2002, Alex Smith completed a pass for a one-yard loss. That was as good as it got for the freshman quarterback that day. On the next snap he was sacked four yards behind the line, and on third down he was sacked again, for a loss of seven. Things weren?t looking any better for Smith in last season?s opener against Utah State. While mopping up a 40?20 win, he threw two interceptions in seven attempts. Says Utah coach Urban Meyer, ?He acted like a freshman ... lacked leadership ... was nervous ... was not a functional quarterback.?
In Smith?s case, form followed malfunction. Two weeks after the Utah State game he made his first start, subbing for injured junior Brett Elliott, and led the Utes to a 31?24 upset of Cal. Smith never left the starting lineup after that, and he finished with 2,247 passing yards and 15 touchdowns (against only three interceptions), completing 65% of his throws in the intricate spread offense installed by Meyer in his first year at Utah. More important, the Utes went 10?2 and won their first outright conference championship since 1957. ?I was no longer tiptoeing around,? Smith says of his turnaround. ?I was just letting go.?
The 6'4", 212-pound Smith, a strong-armed pocket passer with a surprising ability to run over would-be tacklers (149 carries for 452 yards last season), looks poised for a bigger season this year, though in May there was doubt as to whether he?d even be playing for Utah. After graduating in two years with an economics degree and a 3.74 GPA, Smith learned he hadn?t been accepted into graduate school at Utah because he hadn?t taken an econometrics class. ( Smith didn?t realize the course was required.) His frustration over the snafu led to rumors that the quarterback was considering transferring, but Smith denies he came close to leaving. ?There was never a doubt that I was going to stay,? says Smith, who eventually was accepted into graduate school on the condition that he pass the econometrics class this fall. ?I love it too much here.?
There?s a lot to love about the 2004 Utes. The team has seven starters back from a defense that finished the season by shutting out BYU and Southern Miss. With a schedule that sets up favorably, the Utes could bust their way into the expanded BCS. ?Our main goal is to win the Mountain West again,? senior safety Morgan Scalley says. ?Whatever happens from there is gravy. But if the stars are aligned, we feel we can go undefeated.? --G.M.