Making up for lost time

On Oct. 12 of last year, the U football team hit the road for a meeting with the San Diego State Aztecs and promptly blew an early lead, allowing 33 straight points in a 36-17 rout-the Utes’ fourth consecutive loss of the season.

It was then that Alex Smith got his first taste of college football as he took the field, ever so briefly, as the quarterback of the U offense.

He completed two of three passes for four yards and an interception-and just like that, the possibility of a redshirt season vanished, and a year of eligibility was gone.

Fast forward to the 2003 season, where Smith is the new starting field general of the Utes and Urban Meyer’s spread offense.

Since incumbent starter Brett Elliott broke his left wrist in the team’s loss at Texas A&M, Smith has been thrown into the fire of the starting lineup. But despite the fact that he had practically no experience prior to this year, he’s in his second season of eligibility.

Regards to Ron McBride and last year’s offensive coaching staff.

“It was a pretty crappy situation what happened last year, but you can’t dwell on it,” Smith said. “A lot of people would just sit there and feel sorry for themselves. But I’ve still got three years left, a good coaching staff and a lot of opportunity.”

With that year of eligibility gone, Smith has been forced to progress a bit faster-but coach Meyer has been impressed with the way he has responded so far.

“We’re down by three points with 10 minutes left against California, we go on a 16-play drive and kick a field goal to tie the game. Then he comes back with six minutes left and basically eats up the whole clock and we score the game-winning touchdown on a perfectly executed play by him. Yeah, I’d say he’s handling it pretty well,” Meyer said.

Lance Rice, the veteran of the Utah quarterbacks and Smith’s current backup, echoed that sentiment.

“I think he has performed very well, especially against California. He maintained his poise,” Rice said. “It was a big game and he did a great job of staying within the offense and executing what the coaches had planned. He’s doing a good job.”

Still, it’s easy to lament an entire season lost due to one arbitrary substitution decision. “I think that was an unfortunate situation when the coaches put him in against San Diego State last year,” Rice said. “That was a tough deal…but, oh well, I guess you’ve just got to make the best of it.”

Both Rice and Elliott both know very well the benefit of an extra year to watch and learn from the sidelines. Rice used his redshirt season in 1999 upon returning from an LDS church mission and eventually earned a starting job near the end of his freshman campaign.

“It was very beneficial for me,” Rice said. “I had a year to learn the offense a little bit. I worked on the scout team. I was able to work in the weight room for a year and have that year to get my strength back and just learn the offense better.”

Elliott redshirted in 2000 and went on to take over for Rice in 2002, igniting the U passing game last year as he threw for more than 254 yards per game.

Smith, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to reap the benefits of his redshirt season, a fact that will undoubtedly have an impact on his U career.

“I think the only thing that’s going to affect him is that he’s a year behind. He lost a year,” Meyer said. “So three years from now is when it’s going to matter. Right now, he’s just got to play like a starting quarterback.”

Smith has been more than adequate thus far, completing 23 of 34 passes for 222 yards, a pair of touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“He’s a competitor and he’s talented,” Meyer said. “I was kind of surprised at first when he wasn’t developing real fast. But he has been doing much better lately. He has a command of the offense and he’s doing really well.”

Smith has had quite a bit on his shoulders lately and he’s still very much in the learning process when it comes to leadership and decision-making. His progress has also certainly been helped by the presence of veterans like Elliott and Rice, both of whom have plenty of experience to share.

“Lance and Brett both have a lot of starts, so they definitely help me. Whether it’s talking to me about stuff or leading by example, both of them have been helpful,” Smith said. “[They help me with] leadership skills, in the huddle on the sidelines, presence on the field and just how you carry yourself out there.”

Players and coaches have both acknowledged that Smith, in all fairness, should still be a freshman.

But as for right now, Elliott’s absence has given the strong armed Smith a golden opportunity to make up for his lost season and take advantage of his immense potential.

“There’s still three years left to play,” Smith said. “I look at that redshirt year and I just want to put it behind me.”

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