OHIO STATE'S BigMan on Campus avoids campus whenever possible. He has no choice. "I can'tgo one place without someone noticing me," says Buckeyes quarterback TroySmith. "Things get out of hand." When he has errands to run on aweekday afternoon in July, Smith ventures to the outskirts of Columbus, buteven there he can't remain anonymous. At Incredible Nutrition, a strip-malloutpost where Smith buys two cases of protein-drink mix, the only employee inthe store shakes his head as he rings up Smith's order. "My son's going tobe kicking himself that he didn't come in to work with me today," thecashier says. "He's your biggest fan." At a cellular-phone store, afemale salesperson hands Smith a hastily scrawled note that reads in part, YOUARE A GREAT ROLE MODEL FOR OUR BLACK BROTHERS. ¬∂ It's hard for any Buckeye togo unrecognized in football-crazed Columbus, but it's especially difficult fora Heisman candidate who in his last two games of the 2005 season led alast-minute touchdown drive to beat archrival Michigan in Ann Arbor andproduced 408 yards of offense in a Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Onceknown primarily for his running ability, Smith developed into one of thenation's top passers over the second half of last season, completing 67% of histhrows for 1,725 yards, with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions in sevengames. He finished the year as the nation's fourth-rated passer. "You haveto cover so many areas of the field when you're playing him," says PennState linebacker Paul Posluszny.
With the departureof Texas star Vince Young to the NFL, Smith, a senior, enters 2006 as thenation's preeminent dual-threat quarterback-not to mention Ohio's most popularathlete not named LeBron. "Don't get me wrong, it's by the grace of Godthat all this is happening," says Smith. "But it's overwhelming thatpeople think so highly of you." Especially considering that at this time ayear ago, many of those same admirers had a not-so-flattering opinion ofhim.
WHEN THE Buckeyeskicked off their 2005 season at the Horseshoe against Miami (Ohio), Smith wasstanding on a sideline 140 miles away. He listened to his teammates' 34-14victory on the radio while attending a game in Cleveland involving his almamater, Glenville High. "That was probably the worst feeling I could everhave," says Smith. "Everyone in the stadium knew why I was standing onthat sideline." In December 2004 an attorney for a Columbus-areahealth-care company had notified Ohio State that a Buckeyes football player hadvisited its offices the previous spring and walked out with an envelope fromowner Robert Q. Baker, an Ohio State booster. According to a subsequent NCAAreport, the player, identified in media accounts as Smith, came to the companyseeking part-time employment. Baker allegedly advanced him $500 but neverrequired him to work, a violation of the NCAA's extra benefits rule. Smith wassuspended for two games-the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the Miami game. (Ohio Stateindefinitely banned Baker from having any association with the athleticdepartment.)
The suspensioncould not have come at a worse time for Smith, who had just worked his way intothe quarterback mix in Columbus. Though he was ranked as one of the nation'stop 15 quarterback prospects during his senior year of high school, theBuckeyes had signed him with other plans in mind. While being redshirted in2002, he practiced at tailback, wideout and kick returner, and he simulatedstar Miami running back Willis McGahee on the scout team leading up to OhioState's title-game win over the Hurricanes. In '03 Smith was a kick returnerand backup running back, but halfway through his sophomore year, in '04, he gothis chance to play quarterback, stepping in for an injured Justin Zwick,Smith's more celebrated classmate and a traditional drop-back passer. Thoughstill raw, Smith excited Buckeyes fans with his playmaking abilities, leadingOhio State, 3-3 at the time, to four wins in its next five games, capped by a37-21 upset of Big Ten champion Michigan in which he piled up 386 total yards.But less than a month after that triumph, Smith was in exile. "It was anightmare," says quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels. "Troy felt like he leteveryone down."
For Smith, it wasthe latest in a lifelong string of setbacks. Smith's mother, Tracy, raised himand his older sister, Brittany (Smith's mother and father separated when he wasa toddler), in Cleveland's drug-infested East Side. When he was nine, Troybegan playing football, joining the Glenville A's in Cleveland's municipalpeewee league. About the same time, as Tracy was going through a series ofpersonal problems, A's coach Irvin White and his wife, Diane, volunteered totake in Troy. Troy lived with the Whites for nearly four years, returning homeafter Tracy got her life in order. "Troy was a playful, fun-lovingkid," says Irvin. "With his personality, you couldn't help but fall inlove with him."
When he was in theathletic arena, however, Smith was plagued by a short fuse. At Lakewood St.Edward, a parochial school where he played as a sophomore and junior, Smithfrequently clashed with the coaches when they lined him up at receiver insteadof under center. (Shaun Carney, now the quarterback at Air Force, was a yearbehind Smith and often played ahead of him.) Then, during his junior year,Smith was dismissed from the basketball team for elbowing an opponent in thehead. Smith says that the player, who was white, had been taunting him with aracial slur. "It was a mental breakdown," Smith says. "Isnapped."
Shortly thereafterhe left St. Edward for Glenville High, whose rising football program wascoached by Ted Ginn, father of Smith's best buddy and fellow Buckeyes star, TedJr., whom Smith had known since he was seven. Even before he enrolled atGlenville, Smith was spending nearly as much time at the Ginns' house as hisown, and the elder Ginn, renowned in Cleveland for his work with troubledyouth, was quickly becoming Smith's father figure. "I was one of thoseknucklehead kids who didn't want to listen to anyone until something drastichappened," says Smith. Early in the season, Ginn sat him down and told himhe was "poisoning the program" with his attitude. Smith was takenaback. "Since that day I haven't been the type of kid who doesn't want toget instruction," he says. "You can tell me once, and I'll try tochange things. [Ginn] is one of the angels in my life. Without him I wouldn'tbe here."
When the boosterincident came to light, the elder Ginn, concerned that Smith might be revertingto his old ways, urged him to put his trust in OSU coach Jim Tressel and hisstaff. "Troy is a great, heart-warming kid, but it hurts him when hedoesn't [think his coaches] feel the same way back," says Ginn. "Helikes to be stroked." Those nine months in limbo helped spawn, in Smith'swords, "the new Troy Smith," a more mature quarterback determined tomake up for lost time. "It was like night and day," says Smith. "Itotally understand the importance of every team member who puts on the scarletand gray. I understand and value every meeting. I didn't think like thatbefore."
HIS RETURN fromsuspension coincided with the Buckeyes' much-anticipated game against Texas inthe second week of the season. Because Smith had taken limited practice repsduring fall camp, however, Zwick got the start. Smith entered late in the firstquarter and rallied the Buckeyes from a 10-0 deficit to a 19-16 lead, but whenTexas reclaimed the lead with 2:37 remaining, it was Zwick, not Smith, who cameout for the potential game-winning drive. He fumbled on the first play. Tresseland his staff decided in the days after the game to stick with one guy: Smith."Probably the deciding factor as much as anything was Troy's ability tomake something happen with his legs," says Daniels. "We did it knowingthat he still needed to get the throwing part down."
That would happensoon enough. On Oct. 8 against Penn State's ferocious defense, Smith had one ofhis least productive games (154 total yards) in a 17-10 loss. But a week lateragainst Michigan State he looked like a different quarterback. In a 35-24 winover the Spartans, Smith completed touchdown bombs of 57 yards to Ginn and 51and 46 yards to Santonio Holmes. He closed his season with the first 300-yardpassing days of his career, against Michigan (300) and Notre Dame (342).
While most OhioState fans figured the notoriously conservative Tressel had finally opened uphis playbook, Daniels says the change was more Smith's doing. "It was aconfidence thing," says Daniels. "Before, if the Number 1 receiver onthe progression wasn't open, he might have peeked at Number 2, but he knew whathe could do with his legs. He'd take off. Once the confidence and understandingcame around, he started using that athletic ability to buy time and make playswith his arm." Says Smith, "With [the coaches] asserting their trust inme, I knew I had to be in the meeting room after everyone's gone home, studyingfilm. I'm sure that's why things started to open up."
This off-seasonSmith spent more time watching film than Roger Ebert-15 to 20 hours a week byhis estimation. He showed up for morning conditioning drills 90 minutes early.In less than a year he has gone from a platoon player to the undisputed leaderof SI's preseason No. 1 team. "Troy has a humble swagger," saysTressel. "He has a lot of confidence, but he's also humble."
Humility comes inhandy when you're getting ego boosts on a regular basis. Before runningerrands, Smith stood in the office of Ohio State sports information directorSteve Snapp and listened as Snapp rattled off a lengthy list of upcoming photoshoots. In Cleveland, Smith's picture was plastered on billboards as part ofthe municipal school district's Stay in School campaign. (In June, Smith earneda degree in communication.)
His errandscomplete, Smith retreated to the quiet suburb of Gahanna, about 10 milesnortheast of campus, and pulled into the garage of his two-bedroomtown-house-style apartment. Inside, it's not unlike a typical 22-year-old'saccommodations. There's one noticeable difference, though: On his living roomcoffee table is an array of college football preview magazines, nearly everyone of them featuring his picture on the cover.
"I thought itwas a cliché when Ginn Sr. told me this, but when you're the quarterback atOhio State, it's pretty much like you're the governor of the state," saysSmith. "Everybody's watching, and everybody has something to say."
This summer,unlike last, the talk has been nothing but positive.
Get regular updates on the top teams and players, andoffer your two cents in Stewart Mandel's blog at SI.com/collegefootball.
Smith creates nightmares for the defense because he is also a threat as arunner.
Ginn (left) and Smith have been buddies since their childhood days inCleveland.
Smith says that Tressel's trust in him inspired him to work harder to developas a quarterback and a team leader.