Combine Countdown: Watching Rodgers, Geno Smith a 'film junkie'
By Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel
Feb. 12, 2013 5:57 p.m.
Green Bay — Too many personal film sessions ran long. When Jake Spavital returned to his office at West Virginia, quarterback Geno Smith was usually camped out watching tape. The quarterbacks coach had no choice but to shag Smith away. The quarterback had class.
So then, Spavital had a solution.
“I got him an iPad so he’d go to class,” said Spavital, who is now at Texas A&M. “And then he’d start watching the iPad tape in class, which causes more distractions.”
A constant need for film paid off. Smith is widely considered the top quarterback prospect in this year's NFL draft class.
Questions dominate the position. Unlike last year, there isn't an Andrew Luck or a Robert Griffin IIIrampaging into the NFL. West Virginia’s Smith is the headliner and could go as high as No. 1 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs. On Tuesday, Spavital described Smith as the quintessential “film junkie.” Through these last few years, he has coached the record-setting Case Keenum at Houston, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and then Smith.
Out of the three, Smith was the most complete quarterback. And while outsiders may have doubts, Spavital believes Smith has a skill-set that will translate to the pros.
To him, the Chiefs have to take Geno Smith first overall.
“I think it’s a no-brainer to take the first quarterback overall,” he said. “I’ve been around some pretty good ones and I’ve never seen a guy that’s this complete as a quarterback. And he’s hungry.”
On that iPad, Smith watched every snap of Aaron Rodgers’ season in 2011. Sometimes, Spavital joined him but usually Smith watched the Packers quarterback on his own. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder began mimicking Rodgers’ play-action tendencies. The Packers and Mountaineers run a handful of similar formations. In the split-back, play-action game, Smith noticed that Rodgers rides a prolonged fake to the running back to protect himself longer in the pocket.
So he started doing the same thing at West Virginia.
Same story with Drew Brees. Smith liked how Brees pump-faked the opposite direction before throwing screen passes to backs, so he picked that habit up, too.
“He studies it,” Spavital said. “With Brandon Weeden, I couldn’t say that about him. I love the guy to death but he had some good guys around him. Brandon knew how to get the ball to those guys. There were times at West Virginia when (Smith) had to create things.”
All three quarterbacks Spavital coached were very different. He said Keenum had the quickest release of the three but didn’t measure up physically. Weeden had the “strongest arm” but also benefited from a strong supporting cast.
Smith was the best overall player. Neither Weeden or Keenum were quite the student of the game, too.
“He could do it all,” Spavital said. “He could be under center. He can throw out of the shotgun. He can throw comebacks. He can pull it and run when he needs to. We got to do some pretty good stuff with Geno because he was such a good student of the game and we could do anything with him. ... He impresses me a lot with the things that he can do — how he operates the game, how he studies. He would actually sit there and bring ideas to the table. There were times when we let him check 80% of the game. We put a lot on him and he’s capable of doing that."
Smith finished the 2012 season with 4,205 passing yards, 42 touchdowns and only six interceptions. At times, he was video-game efficient.
In a 70-63 win over Baylor, Smith was a mind-boggling 45 of 51 for 656 yards with eight touchdowns and no picks. The next week — surrounded by 100,000-plus at Texas — he led West Virginia to a 48-45 win. And when Smith couldn't feel his hands in a frigid win over Iowa State, he pretended to do play-action fakes in the screen game to get a better grip on the ball.
Said Spavital, "He knows how to think on his feet and be creative with things.”
But there was also that whole five-game losing streak in the middle of the season. Smith's early grip on the Heisman Trophy slipped away and the Mountaineers’ season ended with a thud against Syracuse when Smith was less than impressive. Spavital admits Smith didn't have enough touch on his deep ball as a junior, but said the mid-season struggles in 2012 were a reflection of coaches asking him to do too much more than Smith himself.
Overall, an attention to detail fed Smith's growth and he mostly shed any potential "system quarterback" label. Smith operated in the shotgun and under center. Immediately after each home game, Smith and Spavital watched a replay of the full game together. Smith cleaned up, grabbed food and brought it to his coach's office. He needed to see it while it was fresh in his mind.
From there, Spavital said the quarterback would watch that Saturday's game “four or five times” before their next meeting together.
At the NFL scouting combine, Smith now has a chance to cash in.
“There are those guys that are ‘what can football do for me?’ He’s ‘what can I do for football,’” Spavital said. “That’s how he approaches it. You take the game away from him and he’s got nothing.”