- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Geno Smith is a naturally gifted artist who turned down admission to a fine arts magnet school in his native south Florida in order to focus on football. The West Virginia senior is an English major, taking one class in Shakespeare and another in American literature, even as he has become the most productive college quarterback in the nation.
The artist-athlete is a hybrid rare enough to be celebrated, a reassurance that a violent sport has a place for the right side of the brain. It is a neat hook for a story, and it has next to nothing to do with why Smith has become the early-season frontrunner in the Heisman Trophy race.
To understand why Smith has turned Milan Puskar Stadium into his own version of "NCAA Football '13," stroll to the other side of Smith's skull. It is the combination of intellect and backbone, not artist and athlete, that has fueled Smith this season.
And what a trip he has taken. In four games, Smith has completed 141 of 169 passes for 1,728 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception this season (in fact, the No. 8 Mountaineers (4-0) haven't turned the ball over in their last three games).
His passing efficiency rating of 208.37 would obliterate the FBS record of 191.78 set last season by Russell Wilson of Wisconsin. Smith has played so well that his next 14 passes could fall incomplete and he would still be ahead of Wilson's record. Given that he has thrown only 28 incompletions in four games, those passes aren't likely to hit the ground.
Against Baylor last Saturday, Smith completed 45 of 51 passes for 656 yards and eight touchdowns in West Virginia's 70-63 victory. After the game, he said he would celebrate by returning to the football building to watch video of No. 11 Texas, the defense he will face Saturday night.
Which is all you really need to know.
First of all, Smith is a football nerd. He did exactly what he wanted to do Saturday night. There's nothing he likes to do more than come into the football building and watch video, except maybe to download game or practice video onto his iPad to take home and watch.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen referenced the 2.0 GPA that the NCAA sets as a minimum for a player to be eligible.
"If he had to have a 3.6 in order to play football, he'd probably have a 3.6," Holgorsen said in his trademark rasp. If a voice can have five o'clock shadow, Holgorsen's has it.
"He's a very intelligent kid," Holgorsen said of Smith. "His goal in life, his focus in life, is to learn as much about football as he possibly can. He loves to read. He loves to draw. He's got some hobbies. But I guarantee you, when he's reading and drawing, he's still thinking about football."
There was the checkdown Smith called in the fourth quarter against Maryland that resulted in a 34-yard scoring pass to Tavon Austin to seal a 31-21 victory. There was the eight-yard pass to Austin that Smith suggested to Holgorsen during a timeout on the final, clock-eating drive against Baylor.
"We didn't want to run any out of the pocket play-action stuff, where we get him out of the pocket, because he was a little nicked up," Holgorsen said, "so we didn't have any of that in the game plan. But he knew it was going to work. ... He came to me and said, 'Run this.' And we did, and it worked."
Smith has come a long way from the confusion and adjustment to Holgorsen's offense last season. There's a reason that West Virginia has won eight consecutive games.
"Most people don't understand that the quarterback is really like supposed to be an offensive coordinator out there on the field," Smith said Sunday morning. "I feel like I don't see it as myself against those defensive players, because they don't come up with their game plan. I see it as myself against the defensive coordinator. So I'll get plays and I'll get looks, and I'll figure out what they're doing, which formations, which personnel, and I'll figure out ways to counter it, so the next time I got that look, I would know exactly what to do."
Smith's confidence in his mental acuity knows few bounds. His confidence in his physical ability is not the same. In fact, it is why he pushes himself to study.
I'm not one of those guys who strike you as an imposing player. I honestly don't think I'm that great of a player. ... But I understand the game and I'm far ahead of my peers when it comes to that.
”-- West Virginia QB Geno Smith
"If you look at me," he said, "I'm not one of those guys who strike you as an imposing player (West Virginia lists him at 6-foot-3, 214). I honestly don't think I'm that great of a player. There's pretty much a lot of guys out there more talented than I am. But I understand the game and I'm far ahead of my peers when it comes to that. I know defense like a defensive coordinator. I know offense like an offensive coordinator. It puts me levels ahead of those guys, and 90 percent of the game is mental, which allows me to ... end up with these crazy numbers at the end of the game, because I'm always making the right decision."
Smith has parlayed his work ethic and self-discipline into national attention. Only when it comes to the Heisman Trophy, Smith's belief in himself loses its voice. After the Baylor game, he repeated what he has said all season. He is "not interested" in the Heisman.
His refusal to engage in the Heisman discussion, it turns out, is more of a defense mechanism.
"Isn't that impressive?" Smith asked, a smile dawning upon his face. "I don't know how I should feel about it [the Heisman], actually, to be honest with you. I do know that it is the top award for individuals in the country, meaning you're the best player. But ultimately, it's not something that I'm striving for. It's just that I play so hard because I'm trying to win games."
Whatever the motivation, Smith's ability to stiff-arm the accolades and maintain his focus is as rare as it is powerful.
"There are a lot of guys," Holgorsen said, "who will sit and get on the Internet and read article after article about themselves, or turn on the TV and record their interviews. He's a guy that just doesn't do that. He would rather read a book or put a [video] on his iPad and go home and study. ... He'd rather do that than go check out what the club's like tonight or what these specific girls are doing in the library."
There's a reason for that, the head coach said about his quarterback.
"He's the most competitive guy I've been around," Holgorsen said.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith's success on the field comes from being a football nerd off it.