Smith Once On Top, Now Relegated To Middle of Pack

Heisman Trophy winner won't be among top picks at NFL Draft

April 25, 2007

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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For as much as JaMarcus Russell is being held to the standard of his last game in college football, so too is Troy Smith.


Only for Smith, of course, that isn't a good thing.


In the biggest game of his career, with the national championship on the line, unlike Russell, Smith ran into an impenetrable wall. The Buckeyes succumbed to a relentless Florida defense that smothered Smith, leaving his NFL Draft prospects battered and bruised like a wobbly prizefighter.


The performance was by far his worst of his stellar, if not spectacular, senior season. He capped off an undefeated regular season, where he led Ohio State to the Big Ten title, by winning the Heisman Trophy by the second largest margin in history. Smith was on top of the world.


Then came January and the 4-for-14, 35 yards, one interception and 35.29 quarterback rating-performance that's followed Smith ominously since he left the field in Glendale, Ariz.


Once considered a potential first round pick, Smith now projects to fall somewhere in the third round - at best - and possibly slip to the draft's second day, a hard pill to swallow for any proud man.


Only that may not be the case for Smith, who just might be a different breed than your average athlete, certainly your average top-notch collegian.


Taking the advice of his former coach, Jim Tressel, Smith has stayed humble through the entire draft process, while all around him he's heard everyone pick apart his game and come to the general consensus that his game won't translate to the next level.


So naturally you'd think Smith would want to prove everyone wrong, use the negative talk and criticism as fuel for his fire. And while privately, he may be doing that, publicly he's done nothing but brush off the unflattering comments.


"There's nothing I can do about in the outside world," Smith said. "The only thing I can control is what I do on a daily basis is football oriented. I can't control anything else that happens."


The opinions of the experts and those in the know when it comes to the draft all regard Smith as the fourth-best quarterback prospect in a draft class that isn't particularly deep at the position. Being a Heisman winner only carries so much weight, as real football fans know. Some of college football's best never were able to carve out a niche at the next level, such as Jason White, Eric Crouch and Gino Torretta. Now, some think one day we'll add Smith's name to the list of QBs who couldn't cut it. Some might consider it strange that the best player in college football, who had so much success and played at a level that exceeded nearly all, is going to wait hours to find out where he ends up. But not Smith.  


"It's not strange because the people who make those opinions don't really have a say to where we go," Smith said. "There are a lot of great players in college football and I think there's a lot of great players in general who play football. People's opinions doesn't really mean anything."


But it's not like Smith isn't without his supporters.


"I think Troy can be a great quarterback," said Antonio Pittman, Smith's former Buckeye teammate. "All he has to do is get a chance. It's all about opportunity. At Ohio State he got his opportunity and he worked very hard to get to where he is now."


He picked a big one up in Mobile, Ala. where at the Senior Bowl, Smith worked with the Tampa Bay coaching staff and quarterback guru Jon Gruden for a week, picking up a new offense - the West Coast - in a week and earning the praise of the NFL head coach.


"This is a Heisman Trophy-winning athlete who had a brilliant senior season and I think he just needs to go out and play and play within his framework," Gruden said.


But just like his fellow quarterback Chris Leak, who out-played Smith in the BCS Championship Game, the biggest knock on Smith seems to be his relatively small stature.


Officially measuring in at 6-foot, scouts and NFL personnel worry about whether he'll be able to see over his offensive linemen, whether he'll be able to throw through gaps and holes rather than over the top. So every where he goes, every stop he takes along his path to the NFL, he gets asked about his height.


"You make it seem like being 6-foot is a disease," Smith cracked to one reporter at the NFL Combine in February when he was asked about his height.


But it's no laughing matter to NFL teams who want size in their franchise quarterback. Short - relatively speaking - quarterbacks have had plenty of success in the NFL, like Doug Flutie and current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose name gets mentioned frequently nowadays with Smith's. But they're certainly not coveted, nor expected to ultimately succeed.


Smith, naturally, doesn't think his height should be any issue. His opening-day starting line featured no player under 6-foot-4, and Gruden sees no reason not to believe he can't make it.  


"I think he has to keep doing what he's doing," Gruden said. "I think he has to prove he can operate under the center. I think he has to prove he can operate in a conventional drop back passing system. I think he has to prove he can do things and apply them quickly."


Smith seemed to believe he did that in Mobile. And while he'll need to adapt to whatever system he's drafted into, Gruden thinks it would be a mistake to change what made him so good in the first place.


"Do the things that has enabled him to be very, very successful," Gruden said. "The creative plays, the spontaneous, move-around plays, those have got to be parts of his game."


All throughout the regular season, everyone would say how Smith had "it." Maybe it was "it" that led him to make that incredible Heisman highlight touchdown pass to Brian Robiskie. Whatever "it" was, "it" worked wonders for the Buckeyes, many times over.  


"I guess the `it' would be the dire need to win, the dire need to put your team in a situation to win," Smith said. "To be positive with your guys and letting them know that they're just as important as anyone else on the team."


His former center thinks Smith's intangibles will translate to the NFL.


"There's some things you can't measure and you can't comprehend when you play with a guy," Doug Datish said. "He has the attitude that he's going to win no matter what."


It's his attitude that's helped him put behind the national title game performance, from all indications. That's something Gruden felt Smith needed to do.


And surprisingly the quarterback isn't bitter about it all, even though you couldn't blame the guy if he was. He's said he's fully comfortable with how things played out and that he's at ease with how his college career ended. Sure, winning it all would have been the cherry on top, but he's too blessed for it to feel any way but bittersweet.


"It was a sweet experience the whole way through," Smith said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Just because we didn't get a chance to finish out on a note that we wanted to that gives you no reason to say the season, to me, was a let down."


Nor will it be a let down if he doesn't get picked in the third round or even the fourth round for that matter. That, apparently, is Smith for you. He's a different breed with a different perspective on things, one he hopes can carry him to the kind of success many predict he won't see.