Friday, November 19, 2004
Smith pays the price for knowledge
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
SALT LAKE CITY -- Before Alex Smith can settle into his office chair in the back of the Utah offense meeting room at the Smith Athletic Center late Friday morning, quarterback coach Dan Mullen looks up from the table.
"Go see about your tickets," Mullen says. "You didn't turn any names in, and your mother has called me every day this week."
Alex Smith has led the Utes to 14 straight wins.
"Your mother is going to disown you," offensive line coach John Hevesy calls after him.
Smith's parents, perhaps knowing their son, bought tickets before the season. But there will be about 30 friends and family members at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday for the BYU game, and Smith, as is every player, is entitled to four comps.
"I'm terrible at getting tickets," he says. "That's the last thing I'm thinking about."
It's the day before No. 6 Utah (10-0, 6-0) plays archrival Brigham Young (5-5, 4-2), and Smith has come in three hours before the afternoon quarterback meeting with Mullen to watch more video. Smith is wearing football casual: Utah sweatshirt, shorts and untied hightops.
He looks like a college kid, not like a Heisman Trophy candidate who's second in the nation in passing efficiency and has led his team to 14 straight victories and the brink of a BCS bid. Smith has thrown 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions this season.
Mullen is on the right side of the table; Hevesy is at the back. Head coach Urban Meyer is front left, both feet propped on the table, and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is front right, his left leg hung over his corner of the table.
The hum of camaraderie is the background music to the coaches' give and take. They tease Mullen, who proposed to girlfriend Megan West over dinner Thursday night. She said yes.
"What is that?" Meyer protests. "Do that next week, when we're not playing BYU. Right, Alex?"
"Sure," Smith says.
The coaches alternate between bravado, which comes when your offense is second in the nation in scoring (45.7 points per game) and yards (499.2), and concern. The Cougars play a 3-3-5 scheme that depends on confusing the quarterback with blitzes and odd coverages. BYU loves to have its players stand and then break toward their assignment shortly before the quarterback takes the snap.
The group is watching Utah's 28-7 victory over New Mexico this season, looking for pointers. BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall held the same job with the Lobos before he went to Provo before last season.
"Bronco and (New Mexico coach) Rocky Long are great friends," Smith says later.
"They run the exact same defense. That's where the 3-3-5 started. They talk a lot, and they do a lot of the same stuff. New Mexico went to two down linemen this season, and all of a sudden, it popped up in Provo."
Smith completed 14-of-28 passes for 167 yards, no touchdown and one interception against the Lobos. He did run for two scores, and the Utes won comfortably. Still, when Mullen says that Smith had his worst game of the season against New Mexico, Smith doesn't argue.
"You can't get flustered or panicked," Sanford tells Smith as they watch video of the Thursday's practice. "If they are walking around, they are going to guess right. Don't get panicked. Stick with it. Stuff like this," the coach said, directing his laser pointer at a pass play, "can turn into a huge play. It's hard (for them) to stop everything."
Smith is a native of San Diego and knew little of the Utah-BYU rivalry. He knows now.
"I'm much more into it this year," Smith says. "I really hate them. Playing in the game helped me understand. They are the most arrogant people. It's the whole church and state thing. They're the 'good kids'. We're the 'bad kids.' I didn't feel it in my gut last year like I do now."
A year ago, in a game played in a swirling snowstorm, Utah beat BYU, 3-0. The Utes, in white visiting uniforms, are tough to pick out on the video that Smith and the coaches start watching.
"It was like an ice rink," Smith says.
Sanford replies, "Alex looked like Sarah Hughes back there."
The coaches wander in and out of the room. At one point, it's just Smith and Hevesy, sitting at the back of the table, watching BYU's defensive front and going over blocking schemes and hot reads. They begin watching USC, which beat BYU, 49-10, earlier this season.
Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart dumps a pass left to Steve Smith for a short gain.
"Is that The President?" Hevesy asks, referring to Trojan tailback Reggie Bush, a teammate of Alex at Helix High.
"No, The President would have broken it for a TD," Alex says.
"Is he a good kid?" Hevesy asks.
"Not Maurice Clarett?"
"No," Smith says, "he's a Huxtable."
Smith walks back to the lounge and fixes himself a meatball sandwich, brought in from a nearby Italian restaurant. Meyer is back there chowing down.
"This kid," Meyer says, waving his sandwich at Smith, "is such a pain in the ass."
Smith grins, and Meyer matches it.
"Two years, and never a problem," Meyer says. "Feels like six, doesn't it?"
Smith nods and works on his sandwich. Around the football office, Smith's weight is a popular topic. Everyone monitors it but the secretaries. He is listed at 6-4, 212. He would like to play at 210. On Wednesday, he weighed in at 208. The coaches want more meat on his frame.
Strength coach Matt Balis, who is getting married next week in Minneapolis, looks at Smith and says, "I'd take you, but you don't eat."
"I eat all the time," he says.
Ask the Little Caesar's down the street from the football office. Smith is a regular for the $5.00 pepperoni pizza. He eats potatoes, starches, anything that Dr. Atkins frowned upon. Smith's backup, freshman Brian Johnson, who came in after his morning classes, is from Baytown, Tex., and suggests sweet potato pie.
"It's 10 times better than pumpkin pie," Johnson says.
"Are you saying pumpkin pie is for white people?" Smith jokes.
Not much helps, especially late in the week. Smith doesn't eat much on game day, and he is like any other 20-year-old who is nagged by grown-ups. He'd like to change the subject.
Apprised of this, Meyer looks over at Smith and lets him know that the nagging will continue.
"Transfer out of here tomorrow," Meyer says. "I know the guys at Southern Utah. I'll call them for you."
At 2:30 p.m., Sanford, Smith and Johnson sit at the table, and Sanford gives them a video test. He has them look at nine different BYU defenses and gives them an offensive play. They have to call out what adjustment they would make. Johnson, the freshman, makes his calls with a question mark at the end. If Smith were any more laconic with his answer, he'd have the Gary Cooper role in a campus production of High Noon.
"Expect the unexpected," Sanford says of the Cougars defense. "There's not much more screwball stuff than they are already doing."
Soon Sanford leaves and Mullen returns, sits down with his quarterbacks and clicks on new video. The coaches come and go. The only constant presence in the room is Smith. He leads the Mountain West Conference in three offensive categories, four if you count video study.
"We played New Mexico last year," Smith says. "That was our only (conference) loss. I really wasn't prepared. It was pretty confusing. From then on out, I was set that I was going to be ready for anything."
Even snow -- the forecast for Saturday indicates there may be a reprise.
"I hope it's not like this tomorrow," he says, looking at video. "I was so miserable."
As if to reassure himself, Smith says, "It won't dump like this."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at email@example.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.