By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Judging by the way the crowd that had gathered around West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith during Tuesday night’s player interviews was questioning him, you’d have thought that he had broken Patrick White’s record for quarterback career rushing yards rather than Marc Bulger’s career records for touchdown passes and completions in the opener against Marshall.
The reason this became the topic of conversation was because Smith running the football eight times for 65 yards and a touchdown, that coming when he turned a broken play into a 28-yard jaunt into the end zone, seemed to be yet another step forward into his development and give him yet another dimension on display to convince the voters that he should be this year’s Heisman Trophy winner.
But it was after the maddening crowd had thinned out, however, that the discussion with Smith turned a bit more cerebral and far-reaching in nature.
Clearly, Smith had taken huge steps forward as a quarterback once Dana Holgorsen and his new offense was introduced in West Virginia and one wondered if, indeed, his progress both as a passer, a director of game operations and as a runner were fruits of that change.
Smith almost took offense to the suggestion, introducing a side of his preparation for the quarterback he is today that he had never revealed in the past.
“Coming out of high school I was already ready,” he assured an inquisitive member of the media who had asked about the coaching changes’ effect on his improvement. “You can call Coach Mullen. I just had to grow into my body and mature. That’s something I’ve done over the last year and a half.”
Mullen, of course, was the pre-Holgorsen offensive coordinator and a man who won over few fans other than Smith, who has never badmouthed him or the late coach Bill Stewart.
The truth is, Smith was inferring, that he had taken it upon himself long before his college experience to become the best quarterback he could and it is incredibly surprising the lengths to which Smith went in his pre-collegiate days to gun for the top.
“I studied the game my whole life and I’m pretty much my own coach. Jake (WVU quarterback assistant Spavital) will tell you I push myself harder than anyone else could,” Smith said.
This wasn’t just a matter of going to football camps or listening to a youth coach or even his high school coach, former Mountaineer linebacker Damon Cogdell.
“I have a lot of friends who have actually retired from the NFL who I would sit down and watch football with,” he said. “Many times I have studied defensive coordinators. I have studied the best quarterbacks — Tom Brady and the older guys like Joe Montana and Troy Aikman and those guys.”
He studied their technique and their guile, possessing the kind of intelligence to process what they were doing and thinking and file it away to apply to his own game.
“My mental aspect of the game is way ahead of a lot of guys on my level,” he said.
And just who were his mentors?
“Samari Rolle is my father’s best friend,” he said, referring to the one-time Florida State star who became a Pro Bowl cornerback with the Tennessee Titans after being a second-round draft pick in the 1998 draft.
“I sat with Fred Taylor, Ray Lewis … there were a lot of guys who mentored me,” he said.
This wasn’t just big-time name dropping, either, although if you want to drop NFL names the former running back Taylor, who was the ninth pick in the 1998 draft by Jacksonville out of Florida and who rushed for more than 11,000 yards in his career, and Lewis, the Baltimore linebacker who is on course for the Hall of Fame, aren’t bad names to drop.
It’s one thing to have the opportunity to be tutored by such luminaries, but it’s quite another to be a young teenager and actually keep your mouth shut and your ears open and listen to what they have to say.
Smith understood that.
“That’s the best way to do it. That’s why you’ve got one mouth and two ears,” he quipped.
After hearing what he heard, he knew a lot of things about others and put them to use within his game. His strength, he noticed, was not in running the football but in throwing it and understood the inability to be a big-time runner was not a deficit.
“There are a lot of great quarterbacks who can’t run. They are very smart in making reads, make great decisions, have strong and accurate arms. I think that is what makes a great quarterback, along with leadership,” he said.
“To be a runner, that’s a bonus.”
Smith has watched quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers make do with what they have.
“Those guys work the pocket. That goes along with the drills we do on the field. That goes along with seeing pressure, being able to step up, being able to set your feet. That’s things I work on really hard rather than just running 50 times or flinging it downfield,” he said.
“I work hard on the subtle things at quarterback which make you a good quarterback as well as the big things.”
It quite obviously is paying off.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.