On his first college play, against San Diego State in 2002, Alex Smith completed a pass for a one-yard loss. That was as good as it got for the freshman quarterback that day. On the next snap he was sacked four yards behind the line, and on third down he was sacked again, for a loss of seven. Things weren‚Äôt looking any better for Smith in last season‚Äôs opener against Utah State. While mopping up a 40‚Äì20 win, he threw two interceptions in seven attempts. Says Utah coach Urban Meyer, ‚ÄúHe acted like a freshman ... lacked leadership ... was nervous ... was not a functional quarterback.‚Äù
In Smith‚Äôs case, form followed malfunction. Two weeks after the Utah State game he made his first start, subbing for injured junior Brett Elliott, and led the Utes to a 31‚Äì24 upset of Cal. Smith never left the starting lineup after that, and he finished with 2,247 passing yards and 15 touchdowns (against only three interceptions), completing 65% of his throws in the intricate spread offense installed by Meyer in his first year at Utah. More important, the Utes went 10‚Äì2 and won their first outright conference championship since 1957. ‚ÄúI was no longer tiptoeing around,‚Äù Smith says of his turnaround. ‚ÄúI was just letting go.‚Äù
The 6'4", 212-pound Smith, a strong-armed pocket passer with a surprising ability to run over would-be tacklers (149 carries for 452 yards last season), looks poised for a bigger season this year, though in May there was doubt as to whether he‚Äôd even be playing for Utah. After graduating in two years with an economics degree and a 3.74 GPA, Smith learned he hadn‚Äôt been accepted into graduate school at Utah because he hadn‚Äôt taken an econometrics class. (Smith didn‚Äôt realize the course was required.) His frustration over the snafu led to rumors that the quarterback was considering transferring, but Smith denies he came close to leaving. ‚ÄúThere was never a doubt that I was going to stay,‚Äù says Smith, who eventually was accepted into graduate school on the condition that he pass the econometrics class this fall. ‚ÄúI love it too much here.‚Äù
There‚Äôs a lot to love about the 2004 Utes. The team has seven starters back from a defense that finished the season by shutting out BYU and Southern Miss. With a schedule that sets up favorably, the Utes could bust their way into the expanded BCS. ‚ÄúOur main goal is to win the Mountain West again,‚Äù senior safety Morgan Scalley says. ‚ÄúWhatever happens from there is gravy. But if the stars are aligned, we feel we can go undefeated.‚Äù --G.M.
2003 RECORD 10‚Äì2 (6‚Äì1, 1st in Mountain West)
FINAL AP RANK 21 RETURNING STARTERS 15
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
QB Alex Smith (Jr.)
TD-to-INT ratio of 5 to 1, second best in nation
S Morgan Scalley (Sr.)
3.95 GPA in class, 73 tackles on the field
WR Paris Warren (Sr.)
Broke Utes‚Äô season record with 76 catches
WR Steve Savoy (Soph.)
Seven TD catches as a freshman led team
G Chris Kemoeatu (Sr.)
Preseason All-MWC pick; Outland watch list
Utah‚Äôs kick-return average in ‚Äô03, best in the nation. Bo Nagahi (25.5 yards on 20 returns) and Morgan Scalley (54.7 on three) are back.
In Eric Weddle, Utah uncovered a diamond. Though lightly recruited, the 6-foot, 194-pound Weddle started the final nine games of ‚Äô03 at cornerback and made three interceptions, forced four fumbles and had four sacks to earn freshman AllAmerica honors. This year he‚Äôll get a chance to shine from the strong safety position.
Sept. 2 TEXAS A&M
11 at Arizona
18 at Utah State
25 AIR FORCE
Oct. 1 at New Mexico
16 NORTH CAROLINA 23 UNLV 30 at San Diego State
Nov. 6 COLORADO STATE
13 at Wyoming 20 BYU
JOSHUA LAWTON/ICON SMI
Smith holds Utah career marks for completion percentage (65) and passer rating (155.2).