WVU football: Geno Smith plays through pain
MORGANTOWN -- As best as those closest to him can remember, Geno Smith never has been knocked from a game. Never took a play or a series to compose himself. Never missed a start. Never needed someone finish what he started.
There was a broken shoulder in 2005, when West Virginia's quarterback was a freshman backup at Miramar (Fla.) High School, but he hardly played in a playoff loss that ended the team's season.
He did miss three games as a junior in 2007, but that was punishment for a role he and 53 others on Miramar and Flanagan High had in an ugly brawl in the third quarter of a game the Patriots would win when it was resumed a month later.
Other than that, Smith has not had an injury keep him from lining up behind center. That includes the 2010 WVU season behind a shaky offensive line that allowed 27 sacks in 13 games, plus plenty of other hits Smith endured while passing, scrambling or asked to run.
"I pride myself on that," Smith said Saturday as he begins his junior season with the Mountaineers. "I love to play and I understand injuries are part of the game. No one out there feels great, but it's my job as the quarterback to stay in there."
Smith has been hurt at WVU. He has broken a bone in his left foot twice, once off the field and once in winter conditioning drills, but he played all season with the latter problem that required surgery in the offseason.
There have been close calls. In 2008, when Smith was on his way to Florida's Class 6A offensive player of the year award and a spot on Parade Magazine's All-America team, he was hit hard by a Blanche Ely defender and his hand was hurt badly.
He shook it and winced and tried to make a fist and squeeze. He was hopeless without his throwing hand and Miramar wouldn't be in much better shape without Smith.
He didn't miss a play and ended up with three touchdown passes in a 39-14 win.
"He's tough," said sophomore Ivan McCartney, who caught passes from Smith for two years at Miramar. "Very tough."
Nothing matters more for the Mountaineers.
Freshman Brian Athey transferred out of the program last week (to FCS member Illinois State) and left WVU with only Smith and freshman Paul Millard at the position. There is no one else, not even a walk-on, and there may be no help coming.
In Coach Dana Holgorsen's first season, the pass offense rests in the hands of Smith and his ability to stay upright and in the game, which history suggests is distinctly possible.
This will be Holgorsen's 19th season coaching college football. In the previous 18, he said he never lost a starting quarterback.
"I think a lot of it is the scheme," Holgorsen said. "We sort out our protections pretty good. We coach the quarterbacks to get rid of the ball. We call plays to keep the pressure off of him, so I guess it's a lot of scheme and probably a little bit of coaching."
Holgorsen pressures the defense, too. No time is to be wasted between a tackle and a snap, which frustrates defenders already frustrated by their inability to get hands on the quarterback.
"It kills you," defensive end Bruce Irvin said. "They snap the ball every nine or 10 seconds and eventually it's real tiring."
Holgorsen's offense at Oklahoma State last season allowed 10 sacks. At Houston in 2008 and '09, quarterbacks were dropped 25 and 18 times.
In 2007-08, when he was the co-coordinator at Texas Tech, there were 18 sacks both seasons. Quarterbacks averaged 660 pass attempts those five seasons and led the country in throws three times.
"We aren't asked to run the ball at all," Smith said. "Our job is to put the ball in the hands of the playmakers."
Smith has that reputation.
McCartney marvels at Smith's ability to find the blitz before the snap and make the right read for a quick throw. Stedman Bailey, another receiver who got to know Smith at Miramar, brags about Smith's presence in the pocket and knack for sensing trouble and hurrying up to get rid of the ball before the defense gets him. Irvin is startled by how fast Smith makes up his mind and lets go of the pass.
"All you see is the snap and him getting rid of the ball," Irvin said. "Geno isn't sitting back looking around and scanning the field. It's three or four steps and it's gone."
The offense is built around those abilities and the most critical construction comes in camp, but the key now is to get Smith and Millard to the regular season without wearing out their arms.
Holgorsen, who said he's never had fewer than five quarterbacks in a camp, said he'd prefer to give his top options between 200 and 300 throws in practice. With fewer throwers, he has to limit throws and trust his quarterbacks are honest about how they feel.
Holgorsen said he isn't able to practice and advance the way he wants to right now, either. Quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital and inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson both played in quarterback college and have filled in to throw in these early practices, but Holgorsen doesn't think that's too productive.
The new WVU head coach even had to step in Saturday. Dawson couldn't lift his arm, but practice had to continue.
"What can I do?" he said. "We don't have anyone else. I can't make someone just appear."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.