- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- By the end of last season, Geno Smith was down to 210 pounds, his lowest weight since his sophomore year at West Virginia. He lost his appetite, cut back on weightlifting because of a wrist injury and -- let's be honest -- the job-related stress didn't help. As his interception total grew, his waistline shrunk. He dropped almost 10 pounds, falling into a Manziel-ian weight class.
"I was losing weight, barely eating on game day, just being so anxious and so ready," Smith recalled this week during a break at the New York Jets' training camp. "I was banged up, too, but I fought through it and was able to finish strong."
That he did, but the second-year quarterback applied some Darwin as he plotted his NFL future: He realized the sport truly is a survival of the fittest, deciding he needed to be bigger, stronger and faster to better cope with the grind of a 16-game season.
So Smith vacationed for only a week after the season and reported to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, in January for a six-week program. Basically, he went to work on his body a few months before the Jets' coaches went to work on his mind in the offseason program, which began in April.
The new Geno will be unveiled Thursday night at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets open the preseason against the Indianapolis Colts. The organization has placed its faith in Smith, and now, he gets a chance to justify it. It's the start of a grueling, 20-week journey, and Smith is convinced he's in a better place mentally and physically. He added muscle mass in the offseason, pushing his weight into the 220- to 225-pound range.
"I'm definitely stronger, and I feel a lot faster on the football field," he said. "Maybe that's just a bit of confidence I’m having, making me play faster. I definitely feel faster."
Smith said it's the hardest he trained in two years. After his final season at West Virginia, the focus was on draft preparation -- the scouting combine, his pro day, personal workouts, etc. Like all incoming rookies, his overall conditioning probably slipped. He sprained an ankle in training camp, which also set him back. That he made it through 16 games, not losing any time to injury, was a small miracle.
"I took a beating," he said.
Now, the expectations are higher. Going the distance is no longer the primary objective; thriving is the goal. In the offseason, Smith concentrated on improving his leg strength. He’s squatting 50 pounds more than a year ago, which should help when he’s trying to break free from pass-rushers.
At IMG, Smith spent several hours a day in the weight room, ran hills with a parachute attached to his back and participated in what were billed as "Fun Fridays." But as he said, "It wasn’t really that fun."
With a bungee cord hooked to his waist, he pulled a 40-pound weight or a sled through a series of agility tests. There were six stations, each one lasting 30 seconds. Example: He'd sprint 10 yards, backpedal, sprint again, backpedal and so on -- with 40 pounds of resistance.
And it was on to the next station, no rest.
"It really helped me build up my lung capacity, my wind," Smith said. "It makes me better on the football field, and I don’t get tired. I don’t feel as fatigued during practice or after practice."
Smith was the fastest quarterback at the 2013 combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, so we're not talking about a statue in the pocket here. Nevertheless, he wanted to add speed, knowing the plan is to continue what he started last December, when he turned up the aggressiveness. He ran more frequently than he did early in the season, adding another dimension to the offense. He finished with a team-high six rushing touchdowns.
Former teammate Brady Quinn believes Smith’s improved conditioning, coupled with the presence of Michael Vick, will make him more dangerous as a runner.
"There’s a knack to running, and [Vick] will give him a different perspective," said Quinn, who spent part of last season on the Jets roster. "He'll teach Geno how to see the windows when they open and when to tuck it and run. There may be no better mentor for him."
Smith blew away the coaches when he showed up for the offseason program in April.
"He's just faster. He's faster than he was," quarterbacks coach David Lee said recently, adding that he received texts from Smith -- pictures from Florida of his parachute sprints. "His body is stronger. He's been in that weight room, so physically, he's faster, stronger and he's lost body fat. When you do all that, your mind is right -- and his mind is right."
Once training camp began, Lee instituted his own conditioning program for the quarterbacks. Three days a week, after practice, they stay behind and sweat -- a lot. They run gassers, sprinting around cones, and finish by throwing seven passes into a net, trying to hit a target. The idea, of course, is to overcome fatigue and maintain accuracy. Most games are won or lost in the fourth quarter. Smith threw more interceptions (seven) in the fourth than in any other quarter.
A new season starts Thursday night, and Smith expects those "Fun Fridays" last winter to produce fun Sundays in the fall.
"That," he said with a smile, "will be a good headline."
3hEric D. Williams