By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It isn’t the arm that threw for a school-record 4,385 yards last season that draws you to Geno Smith, although if it was that would be reason enough to make him your West Virginia University football hero.
But Smith’s greatest asset and, certainly, the one that not only sets him apart but draws you to him is that he offers something that is so scarce in athletics today — honesty.
Ask him a question, get a straight answer.
No Ali shuffle in the words he utters, no spin or attempt to be politically correct.
As he is about to embark on his senior season, one that will launch him into the National Football League where the combination of his physical talents, mental capacities and personality could turn him into an American hero, Smith remains concerned with doing the things he must do right now.
Ask him how he performed this spring and there’s no false modesty, yet there is also no boasting.
“Personally, I think I’ve been doing a good job of leading this team,” he answers. “I’ve had my ups and downs, and I’m going to make mistakes. I think I’ve gotten better over time with dealing with my mistakes and not getting too down on myself and just moving on to the next play.
“I want to be perfect, but I’m not going to be perfect. When I was a sophomore and freshman and made bad plays it would be on my mind for two or three plays after that. Now, I make a bad play, I just move on.”
What you don’t hear is talk about the techniques of his craft, about his footwork or his ability to throw deep.
First of all, technique isn’t a problem for him but what he says signifies that he realizes the things that separate the good quarterbacks from the great ones aren’t those technical skills.
Greatness is found in attitude. It is something that may be verbal, and certainly Smith has proven himself to be verbal with his teammates time and again, sometimes visibly on the sideline during a game.
But it doesn’t have to be verbal. Attitude is the way you carry yourself, the way you move and the way you deal with each situation in games, in practices, in meetings.
Smith, like his coach Dana Holgorsen, never is satisfied with the offense, and because of that, even in the spring following a 70-33 beating of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, he continues to seek improvement.
He understands the offense, which is deep and talented and returns nine starters, is among the nation’s best, but that is not enough because he isn’t comparing his offense to others.
“We all expect more. We expect perfection — which is impossible — but at the same time it’s something that we strive for,” Smith said. “It’s the same reason why Coach Holgorsen says we’re not where he wants us to be — because he’s a perfectionist.
“We’re not going to be perfect, but we have to get to a point where we are all on the same page and we understand what we have to do to be a good team and a good offense,” he said.
And that flows downhill, from coach to leader to the followers.
Smith, in fact, is uncomfortable in the role of favorite, even though he knows that this team has a chance to perform as a Top 10 team and, with some breaks, to find its way near or at the top.
Because of that, it will draw attention from opponents, especially in a new conference that is as proud of its tradition as is the Big 12 and would not like a first-year invader from the Big East to come in and cause such a ruckus.
“I like to fly under the radar because we’re guys who could have gone anywhere in the country but we chose to come here and play for West Virginia,” he said. “I think we are going to do some special things this year, and no matter what the defense throws at us we are going to be ready for it.”
Smith, in many ways, is the poster child for staying in school in an era when so many athletes are in and out of college before the ivy on the walls has a chance to bloom for a second time. He has put his time at WVU to the best of use, allowing himself to mature both physically and mentally, to understand the kind of changes that can come at you in life and to thrive off it.
In truth, which is what Smith is all about, he is the single factor that lifts WVU out of the ordinary and gives it a special aura and a chance to reach heights it never before has seen.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.