Although West Virginia’s spread offense doesn’t directly correlate to the NFL, the system strengthened Smith’s spatial-reasoning skills and gave him the freedom to put his imprint on each play.
It’s why the rookie has a real chance of beating out Mark Sanchez to be the Jets’ starting quarterback in Week 1.
Smith didn’t have a playbook in two years in Dana Holgorsen’s system. No pamphlet. Not even a piece of paper.
He learned by watching video cut-ups of the next week’s opponents, taking copious notes to reinforce the visuals and practicing the 15 core concepts (seven pass plays, four screens and four run plays) of the offense.
Holgorsen and Smith’s quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital ran about 10 formations out of those core plays. The rest was up to Smith, who had the freedom to channel his inner Manning and improvise whenever he saw fit.
“He had free rein to check in and out of plays based on the look defenses gave him,” said Spavital, who is now the co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Texas A&M. “We put a lot of pressure on him.”
Spavital said that Smith checked out of as many as 80% of called plays in any given game, an astounding total in an era of control-freak coordinators. Smith called an audible on about 50% of the plays in his 656-yard, eight-touchdown performance against Baylor last September.
His ability to correctly decipher pre-snap looks and check to the right play call in college gives him an advantage over most rookie quarterbacks confined by the script.
Smith faced plenty of exotic defensive looks since most teams played third-down personnel against West Virginia’s no tight-end, spread formations.
Holgorsen’s style of teaching tested his quarterback’s ability to mentally visualize principles during the week.
At first, it was a shock to Smith’s system, but it improved his study habits and note-taking skills. It ultimately sped up his ability to make site adjustments on game days, which will serve him well with the Jets.
“If it wasn’t the right play, then I would check out of it,” Smith said. “If we called a run play to the left and we got (overloaded defenders) on the left, I’d either check a run to the right or throw a quick screen to the left or check into a pass play and get it blocked up on the left. So we had three options.”
“He had a very good feel of knowing the situation and a good understanding of what we were capable of doing,” Spavital said. “He had a good feel of how the offensive line was working that game. There were times when we couldn’t get a yard running the ball, so Geno would try to get the ball on the perimeter.”
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Smith was heavily involved in the weekly game-plan installations starting on Saturday nights when he reviewed tape of the game he had just played with Spavital. Sometimes, they’d get a head start on the next opponent before leaving the football offices around midnight.
On Sundays, Smith watched video of opponents’ base blitzes and down-and-distance tendencies. On Mondays, Smith and Spavital bounced ideas off each other via text in between the quarterback’s classes before the final game-plan was formulated on Tuesday.
Smith downloaded the opponents’ defensive blitz and third-down tendencies on his iPad, which also included every offensive play that Holgorsen ran in his previous stops at Houston and Oklahoma State.
“I had every single play from the Patriots, who (had) elements of our system,” Smith said. “I had every single play that Sean Payton ran with Drew Brees. Aaron Rodgers plays, too. That thing is just filled with tape.”
Smith’s transition back to a more conventional learning process includes grasping Marty Mornhinweg’s playbook, which is as “thick as a dictionary,” the rookie admits.
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The quarterback’s favorite word is “repetition” when asked how he simplifies seemingly complex principles.
“I don’t think it could get complicated enough for him to not comprehend it,” West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “He’ll do as much studying and film study for him to learn it.”
Smith spent the five weeks after minicamp testing himself with written quizzes that Jets quarterbacks coach David Lee administered this offseason to prepare himself for the competition.
“I was able to Xerox a couple of those off and take them home and continued to do the quizzes over and over,” Smith said. “Grade myself. What I got wrong, what I got right. Then do it again. Keep grading myself until I get 100%.”
Rex Ryan admitted that the rookie needs to make quicker decisions in the pocket. Smith realizes that he also must sharpen his footwork and improve basic principles such as his seven-step drops and play-action from under center, but it’s not overwhelming for him.
“It’s just about studying it,” Smith said. “The first couple times I did it, I went out on the practice field and retained it pretty well, but it wasn’t as good as I am now. It won’t be as good as I am next year or the year after that.”
He’s more ready than you think.
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