Portrait of a QB

Like RG3 and Tebow, WVU's Geno Smith is a unique Heisman-hopeful

Updated: August 22, 2012, 11:19 AM ET
By Zach Schonbrun | ESPN The Magazine

Geno SmithAP Photo/Chris JacksonGeno Smith has the arm to put up Heisman-worthy numbers. But he has another surprising stroke.

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ROBERT GRIFFIN III HAD the socks. Tim Tebow had the eyeblack. Now the nation is about to learn about another Heisman-hopeful QB with a unique touch.

West Virginia's Geno Smith provided glimpses of his virtuosity in 2011, when he was asked to ditch remnants of the spread-option system he'd learned as a sophomore under the late Bill Stewart and pick up Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid offense. No problem. Smith threw for 4,385 yards (fourth in the FBS) and tied a single-season team record with 31 TDs. His breakout year included six scoring strikes in an Orange Bowl win over Clemson, instantly putting him on the list of 2012 Heisman candidates.

But his creativity runs much deeper and goes back much further than his play on the field. "In elementary school, I'd finish my work before other students and draw all day," says Smith. He later attended Miami's Norland Middle School, which places an emphasis on the arts. "I learned all types of medias; we did still lifes, portraits, self-portraits."

This wasn't just a kid who was playing with paint. He was offered spots at some of the top high school art programs in the U.S. But Smith's other passion prevailed, and he became the No. 8 QB prospect in the nation at Miramar High in Florida's Broward County. While drawing remains a way for him to decompress, he says pursuing an art career in college would take away too much focus from the game (he's an English major). Besides, if all goes well, he won't be hurting for work.

"Mechanically, he's a first-round guy," says Holgorsen, who tutored this year's overall No. 22 pick, Brandon Weeden, at Oklahoma State in 2010. "Last season, a lot of Geno's success was due to natural ability. But now he fully understands the system."

Smith and Holgorsen refer to the Eers' spread formation as "simple." Maybe so, if you consider only the basic routes and blocking schemes. But the quarterback must direct the action, constantly reading coverages and calling audibles at the line. Smith only makes it look simple. "I'm responsible for most of the success we have on the field," says Smith, who needs 697 yards to be the school's career passing leader. "But you want that as a QB."

That burden will grow heavier this season, though, as No. 9 WVU shifts from the Big East to the stacked Big 12, which includes five other teams ranked in ESPN's preseason top 25. To prepare, Smith (6'3", 220) packed on about 15 pounds of muscle and worked on getting more push from his plant leg to improve accuracy -- even though he completed 65.8 percent of his throws last season and had the second-fewest INTs (seven) among the 18 QBs with 450-plus attempts.

"There's nothing that the new defenses will do that he's not seen before," says Holgorsen. "If he wants to leave a legacy, he just has to win games."

Of course, if the team falls out of the title picture, he can still make a run at WVU's first Heisman; voters have recently been kind to QBs with gaudy box scores and unusual backstories (see box above). Not that he'd be happy about that. "At the end of the day, it's all about what I do on the field," says Smith.

Spoken like a true artist.

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