THE WILD CARD in the Heisman race has a shy smile, pencils for legs and study habits so laudable that he earned a bachelor's degree in economics in two years. During games he recognizes and cuts through defensive schemes with a surgeon's precision, and when interviewed he deflects praise to everyone but the person with the tape recorder.
That's not typical football-star behavior, but as the quarterback who led BCS outsider Utah to an 11-0 record and a likely Fiesta Bowl berth, junior Alex Smith is a star just the same. A stroll across campus earns the Davey O'Brien Award finalist cheers from passersby, while the Utes' official website carries the corny slogan DEFENSES CAN'T PICK ALEX SMITH, BUT HEISMAN VOTERS CAN.
Smith regards these manifestations of his newfound popularity a little sheepishly. Back at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., tailback Reggie Bush was the player who had Heisman potential. Smith was merely the guy who handed off to him. "Did I ever think this could happen?" says Smith of being considered along with Bush for national player of the year. "Never, not in my wildest dreams."
Smith's candidacy took off in mid-October, when he threw four TD passes and ran for another score in a 46-16 win over North Carolina. Whereas Smith spent much of the fall of 2003 just trying to absorb coach Urban Meyer's explosive spread-option offense, this year "he began to know instinctively what play was needed," says quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen. Smith now has such a grasp of the Utah attack that on 117 of the 120 plays the Utes had ready for BYU, he was asked to read the defense at the line and make the call to pass, hand off or dart downfield himself.
"As soon as you feel like you have something going defensively, Smith will throw an unbelievable ball where you least expect it," says Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, whose Wildcats fell to the Utes 23-6 in September. "He runs as diversified an offense as I've seen."
That's reflected in his stat line. In Utah's 11 wins Smith completed 185 of 280 passes (66.1%) for 2,624 yards and 28 TDs while throwing just four interceptions. Utah's most dangerous runner, he also gained 563 yards on the ground and scored 10 touchdowns. Smith is second in the nation in passing efficiency and, according to his coaches, No. 1 in leadership. "The guys at USC and Oklahoma have so many weapons," says Mullen. "For us to win, Alex has to play at the highest level. Through 11 games he's done just that."
The biggest knock on Smith is that those games weren't very tough: The Utes are 94th out of 117 in the NCAA's strength-of-schedule rankings. But if Utah is worthy of a BCS bowl, its best player must be among the elite too. --Kelley King