Seizing Second Chances

  • April 26, 2010 12:50 PM
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By Shannon McNamara for MSNsportsNET.com
April 26, 2010

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Rumor has it that freshman quarterback Geno Smith underwent foot surgery a few months back, slowing his progress during the Mountaineers’ offseason training.

  Geno Smith celebrates a touchdown during Saturday's scrimmage at Milan Puskar Stadium.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

Smith’s senior teammates beg to differ.

“He’s better than last year, even though he messed up his foot,” wide receiver Jock Sanders said recently.

In fact, Smith himself says that if it wasn’t for the constant reminders from outsiders, he wouldn’t even remember that he went under the knife.

“I really don’t even think about it,” the Miramar, Fla., native said without pause. “The surgery is way in the back of my mind. I’m just happy to be back out on the field.”

When Mountaineer fans last saw the right-handed slinger, he was bravely trying to lead his team to a fourth-quarter comeback in the 2010 Konica Minolta Gator Bowl on Jan. 1. Though a tough, 33-21 loss to Florida State closed the chapter on WVU’s season and Smith’s rookie campaign, the 2009 Parade High School All-American showed promise and potential that is only now starting to take flight.

Relegated to skeleton pass drills this spring while completing his foot rehabilitation, Smith chose to make the most of his opportunities and not dwell on missed chances.

“This injury had a chance to make or break me,” he explained, no pun intended. “Even though I couldn’t run, I worked hard in the weight room and showed my teammates that I’m still here to work.

“Once I was cleared to step on the field, I knew I had to go as hard as I could. I know now that at any point, everything can be taken away from me.”

Sanders says that Smith’s work with the receiving corps has been most impressive.

“Geno’s starting to see the little things we see,” Sanders, an all-BIG EAST performer and the team’s top returning receiver, said. “We’re starting to get on cue in the skeleton drills, and it’s a good thing that it’s starting to happen now.”

WVU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen echoes Sanders’ eagerness, but is hesitant to sound satisfied.

“I’m a little guarded when talking about his (Smith’s) development because he hasn’t gone against a pass rush yet,” began the assistant coach. “What we have seen so far is a tremendous development, not only on the field, but the way he has been carrying himself off the field is really cool, too. He’s gotten out of that freshman mentality and is showing signs of getting ‘it.’

“He’s entering his bones, so to speak, and that’s the cool thing to see.”

Though sophomore quarterback Coley White has taken all of the snaps during scrimmages, Smith has emerged as a new voice in the Mountaineer offense, both within and outside of the lines.

“There’s a difference when he takes to the field,” Mullen explained. “We snap out of the huddle quicker, guys get lined up faster and they run around a little sharper. Things are just clean.

“Then, in the meeting rooms, he is so talkative. Last year, he used to sit in the back like a church mouse trying to learn. He really knows a lot now. He’s not only listening and responding, but he’s also contributing. He is opening my eyes.”

Sanders says that Smith’s newfound assertiveness and confidence has also earned the respect of his teammates.

“Even though he’s younger than me, I’m trying to follow him,” said Sanders. “He’s trying to run this offense. On the field, you can see his competitive nature. He always wants to score and he’s mad when he doesn’t complete a pass.”

Smith’s high standards follow a freshman season in which the athletic coaching education major went 32-for-48 passing for 309 yards and one touchdown in five games.

Smith said last August that he was looking forward to a year of learning under the veteran quarterback Jarrett Brown. Afforded the time to grow into his collegiate game, yet thrust into pressure conditions when Brown went down with an injury, Smith is grateful for the situational experience he received last fall.

“That time on the field was priceless,” he marveled. “My first time coming out on to the field in front of the fans is a memory that I will never forget. My first game at Auburn, my first touchdown – all of those things have prepared me to work even harder. I want to have a lot of memories here at WVU, and I want to do great things for this program.”

For now, Smith is content “doing great things” with Sanders and backfield-mate Noel Devine, two proven Mountaineers and role models for the still-green quarterback.

“Both of them have shown me that you have to grind every day no matter what you are doing,” Smith said. “Those guys are definitely the leaders of this offense – we run this offense through Noel and Jock. The young guys, like Tavon (Austin) and me, watch those guys work so hard in the weight room and lead this team. We want to do the same thing in the future.”

Mullen says Smith’s mentality will undoubtedly lead to his development as a leader.

  Geno Smith appeared in five games last year as a true freshman backing up starter Jarrett Brown.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

“The good thing is that you don’t have to think of Geno as the West Virginia quarterback because you have guys like Jock and Noel,” he said. “That’s the blessing. He’s not going to have to come in next year and be the face of our offense. He needs to come in and be the guy that distributes the ball to the faces of our offense. That’s where he’s going to lead this team. When he does that, that’s when he’ll become the face of the program.”

Mullen paused before laughing and reiterating Sanders’ sentiments.

“He’s still a true freshman!” the coach exclaimed. “It’s hard to believe, but he’s still a true freshman.”

Maybe a true freshman in technicality alone, but Smith has already overcome two injuries and has proven that he has the will and focus to return to the field.

“That’s something that amazes me – sometimes I have to sit back and remember that I am only a sophomore,” an eager Smith mused before laughing and acknowledging that he still answers to “freshman” for two more weeks. He continued, “When I step out on the field with my teammates, there’s no age-difference or anything like that. We are all brothers out there.”

A bandaged-band of brothers for sure, the Mountaineers all appear ready to work together this summer in preparation for what is shaping up to be a storied 2010 season. When pressed to list his collegiate goals last August, Smith stated, among others, that he wanted to win a national championship and a Heisman trophy. While those goals are still high on his list, his focus has narrowed a bit since the surgery and he has one immediate goal he appears ready to achieve.

“I just want to play,” he stated. “I want to be out on the field with a chance to win the game. That’s the reason I came to WVU. Next season’s first game is already something I’ve circled on my calendar.”

And with that early RSVP, Smith appears more than ready to move on from his offseason injury and seize his opportunity to write his story in the Mountaineers’ book of legends.