Everywhere you look there is something to read about Geno Smith
these days. And for good reason – Smith is having a season for the ages.
In four games so far, he has already thrown for 1,728 yards and 20 touchdowns – with no interceptions. In his last five games, which includes last year’s six-touchdown performance against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Smith has tossed 26 touchdown passes with zero interceptions. Geno’s last pick was thrown at South Florida, more than 200-some passes ago.
Then, last Saturday’s 656-yard, eight-touchdown performance against Baylor catapulted Smith to the top of the Heisman Trophy list as we flip our calendars to October. Sure, there’s still a lot of football to be played, and a curious nation will be tuned in to Fox on Saturday night to see how Geno performs against 11th-ranked Texas. How he does against the Longhorns will go a long way in determining if he remains at the top of the Heisman list, but don’t expect him to treat this game any differently than any other one he prepares for.
You see, the secret to Geno’s success is really no secret at all to anyone who knows him. This guy loves football and he’s compulsive about it.
“He doesn’t take anything for granted,” said Coach Dana Holgorsen. “He is harder on himself than anybody. I’ve said it doesn’t matter if it’s a game or a practice, he gets his iPad after practice and he gets all of the games or practices, the opponents’ game – he’s just a student of the game.”
When Smith realized that he needed to improve his long passing after missing several deep balls last year, he worked all summer on it. If there is something about an opponent he’s not sure about, he will study them until he figures it out. Right after last Saturday’s 70-63 victory over Baylor, instead of visiting with his mother, who traveled up to Morgantown from Florida to watch the game, he handed her his box of pizza and went straight into quarterback coach Jake Spavital’s office to start watching the tape of the game.
“Geno can’t get his mind off the game, and even when he’s at home he’s got film on his iPad and he is actually watching tape and breaking it down,” said Spavital.
On Monday night, when the coaching staff is completing work on that week’s game plan, Spavital says he can usually expect a text from Geno around 10:30 that evening wanting to know what they came up with.
On Tuesday, following class, Geno will come over to the Puskar Center to take a look at the game plan on the board and start offering his suggestions. And the coaches usually listen.
“He suggests a lot,” said Spavital. “We’ll watch it and he’ll watch the tape and we will sit there and talk about it and if there are things he doesn’t like we will consider changing them, or there are things he wants to add or sees as we continue on with watching tape, we’ll add it.”
Last week against Baylor, Smith actually checked to a play that West Virginia didn’t have in its game plan. Naturally, it worked.
“There are times when he checks into a bad play and it works and you get him off on the sideline and say ‘listen, that was not a very smart play in this situation’ but he can go out there and run anything we’ve taught him,” said Spavital. “We don’t do much and we rep it a lot, and we try and get very good at it.”
Smith is a notorious copycat, particularly when it comes to studying NFL quarterbacks. The two he’s spent the most time studying in his spare time (if you can call it that) are Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers – two pretty good guys to observe, by the way.
“If you look at the under-the-center stuff he’s trying to mimic Aaron Rodgers with his footwork and he is constantly watching other quarterbacks that have had success, and he’s trying to get little things here and there to complete his game,” said Spavital.
Last summer, Smith had an opportunity to spend some time with Peyton Manning at his quarterback academy, which is the equivalent to the Holy Grail for quarterback copycats. You can only imagine how much Geno was able to sponge off the future hall of famer.
Geno’s obvious improvements – his deep-ball passing, his footwork in the pocket, his catchable throws, and even his bulkier frame – are all the result of him compulsively wanting to get better.
Today, there isn’t a throw that Smith can’t make out on the football field or a defense that will catch him off guard.
“When he’s in the pocket he’s ready to pull the trigger at all times,” said Spavital. “With the deep ball, if you look at how he threw it last year he was kind of winding up and he was dropping the ball a bit and was trying to get as much torque on his arm as possible.
“Now, he’s eliminated that and he’s just worked on a fluid motion and keeping things consistent. Actually, putting 20 pounds on during the off-season has helped out a lot. He’s a lot stronger,” Spavital said.
As for all of the hype surrounding Geno these days, don’t worry about him drinking in all of the poison because he likely hasn’t read or watched it - he’s too busy finding something wrong with his game that he thinks he needs to fix. Plus, Geno's got a coach in Dana Holgorsen who helps keep him grounded as well.
“It’s all about handling expectations, whether you are talking about a specific trophy or a big game on national television,” Holgorsen said. “It is the same thing we talked about when Geno was picked as the Big 12 preseason player of the year – those are just expectations.
“When you win a BCS game by 37 points there is going to be expectations. We talk about expectations all the time and Geno does a good job with that. Geno understands that he needs to get ready to face that next task.”
On the plane ride today down to Austin, some guys will be messing with their phones, playing video games or catching up on some sleep. Geno will likely have his iPad on his lap watching Thursday’s practice or taking another look at Texas secondary cutups.
After all, there is always something new for him to learn.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.