The Times West Virginian

October 5, 2012

WVU’s Smith becomes football scholar

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — At 12:55 a.m. Thursday, Texas Christian University quarterback Casey Pachall was pulled over for running a stop sign in Fort Worth, Texas, and charged with suspicion of DWI.

It can safely be assumed that at that very moment West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith was either watching tapes of the Texas defense for Saturday’s 7 p.m. showdown in Austin or sleeping.

That may explain why Smith is a Heisman Trophy candidate and Pachall a candidate for some kind of rehabilitation program, having previously tested positive for drug use and publicly admitting that he had indulged in cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy.

The two quarterbacks apparently have different ideas of what to do in their off-time.

Smith’s preparation routine is becoming the talk of college football and is being credited with being as important as any play Coach Dana Holgorsen draws up, any route Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey runs or any pass Smith throws.

In the offseason, perhaps, Smith may get away from it all and dabble with his painting or some other area of the arts. That relaxes him and, last time anyone looked at the state statutes, is totally legal.

During the season he puts all that aside, along with everything else in his life, and lives an almost monk-like existence.

“Just go to class and football,” was the way he put it Tuesday night. “All other things are on hold.”

The best example of how narrow his focus is during the season came last Saturday moments after he finished his final football duty of a day in which West Virginia would beat Baylor, 70-63, with Smith throwing for an unimaginable 656 yards and an unearthly eight touchdowns.

His mother, Tracey Sellers, had come from Miami, Fla., to watch him perform as no quarterback at West Virginia had ever performed before him. He had fulfilled quite eloquently his media obligations, as he always had as a three-year starter at WVU, and had been handed his post-game nutrition, that being a pizza.

You might even call it Geno’s pizza.

But he wasn’t hungry and wasn’t in a celebratory mood, even with his mother, for that game was done and another was looming in the not-so-distant future, a game of great importance, for the Mountaineers would face a legendary program, also in the Top 10, on its own field, a Texas team said to own the best defense in the Big 12.

He handed the pizza to his mom and headed with quarterback coach Jake Spavital to the film room.

“He can’t get his mind off the game,” Spavital would say later. “Even when he’s at home he has film on his iPad and he’s breaking it down. Even last night (the Monday night after the Baylor game) he’s calling me at 10:30 or 11 and asking me what’s on the game plan and what he needs to be looking at.”

That is correct — even before the game plan had been presented to the quarterbacks, he wanted some advance notice, some extra study, a chance to get a head start on the Texas defense and even his own teammates, for he could only lead them if he knew more than them.

And it wasn’t even enough for him to just obtain the knowledge, for he shared some of it with his former high school teammate and receiver Stedman Bailey, sending tape to him with the note, “Here’s what to look for in the Texas defense.”

He is that serious, that studious when it comes to the game.

“I watch film,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since my freshman year and it’s just the way I think the game should be approached. If you put yourself behind the 8-ball by not watching film and go into a game not prepared, you won’t play as well.”

And so when he snubs his mom and heads off to study, she understands.

“My mom knows that. She gets mad at me because I’m so calm. She wants me to be all excited, but I’m very serious about what I do and I work very hard at it,” Smith explained.

In truth, head coach Dana Holgorsen has never really seen anything like Smith and his approach.

No matter how well he does, he continues to push himself toward the perfection that he admits he will never reach.

“I don’t see anything different between last year and this, other than the confidence is a little higher,” Holgorsen said. “When you ask him to do things, he does it. When you ask him to watch tape or critique himself, he does it. He sits in the front of the room and is bright-eyed when we start at 2:30 p.m.

“He is ready to get out there and practice. His practice is always the same. If it was affecting him, it would affect his practice and his performance. I see a confident kid that works hard, prepares and is ready to go on Saturday.

“I have seen the same things with him for the past four weeks. We will monitor that very closely this week. We don’t want him to get goofy. If he gets goofy, we will tone him down.”

By goofy, Holgorsen means pushing himself too far, too hard, burning himself out.

Spavital, however, believes there is not a chance of that happening.

“He’s been this way since Day 1,” he said. “We’ve had discussions in the past about him being constantly in the film room. You kind of try to tell him to go out and have some fun, to be a college student, but fun to him is going out there playing football.

“That’s very rare. I’ve never coached one like this, a guy who the happiest he is going out there on the field. He’s constantly wanting to learn and constantly is improving his game.”

It doesn’t stop in the offseason either. Smith is driven to make himself more than just a great college quarterback. He senses the NFL in the future and his film study includes that. Quite often he will be looking at Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers or Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, not to amaze himself at what they do but to learn from how they do it.

“If you look at a lot of our under center stuff he’s trying to mimic Aaron Rodgers,” Spavital said. “He’s watching quarterbacks who have had success and take little things from them to help his game.”

And what does Smith see when looking at the NFL quarterbacks?

“One thing about Aaron is he’s pretty good when the play breaks down and no one is open. He scrambles and gets six or seven yards. It keeps them ahead of the chains,” Smith said. “He’s really good with decision making and along with the tremendous ability to fit the ball into a tight window.

“Tom Brady is the same way. He moves in the pocket, always keeps his eyes downfield, always looking for someone to get open.”

You might have noticed that against Baylor, especially on a touchdown to Bailey in the back of the end zone on a play that he kept alive, his eyes always downfield until Bailey came free.

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.