Alex Smith: Offense Took Awhile To Master

SAN ANTONIO --- During mat drills at 5 a.m. in the first offseason of Coach Urban Meyer's two years at the University of Utah, Alex Smith was wondering who was crazier --- Meyer or Matt Balis, the barrel-chested strength and conditioning coach who was constantly in his face screaming at the top of his lungs? The yelling and screaming was bad enough, but what did wrestling linebackers or carrying rocks have to do with playing quarterback?

(First of two parts)

Alex Smith was the good looking, California cool quarterback from San Diego, so smart that he had enough college credits to skip his freshman and sophomore years the day he stepped on the Utah campus. Yet he wondered: if I am so smart then what am I doing here wrestling linebackers at 5 a.m., getting screamed at for every little mistake and standing in line to puke into a big rubber trash can?

They pushed him to the limits of human endurance. They kept demanding more and he felt that he had nothing more to give.

"There's Coach Balis and he's running around in there making you do all kinds of crazy things that have nothing to do with football and all he can do is scream at you," said Smith Sunday morning at the Reebok National Combine which was part of the US Army All-American Bowl weekend. "I hated him. I really hated him. I hated him, I hated Coach Meyer, I hated the mat drills … I hated all of the coaches. This was insane.

"If Coach Meyer walked into a room I wanted to leave. If I saw Coach Balis I wanted to run."

At the moment when he thought he could go no further, something clicked in his mind to help him understand why all this mattered.

"I started understanding what it was all about," he said. "I started to understand that they were preparing you to be so tough that you wouldn't give in to fatigue, you wouldn't quit when things weren't going your way.

"They wanted you to do your best and give everything you had. I don't think any of us had ever given everything we had but we learned how to do it and it made us better."

Utah, 5-6 the year before Urban Meyer arrived, went 10-2 that first year. Looking back on the mat drills, Alex Smith and all of his teammates realized how they had been transformed by the two crazy coaches.

"Two weeks after we won our bowl game, we were all there ready to go … every one of us," he said. "We were ready for it and we wanted it. We wanted to get better and we knew this would make us better. We appreciated what we had gone through and now we wanted more because we wanted to take that next step."

That next step was a magical 12-0 run in the 2004 season when Utah and the Mountain West Conference forced the mighty Bowl Championship Series to open its doors to the ugly stepchild. The Utes forced their way into a BCS bowl game and then handily disposed of Pitt in the Fiesta. Smith played his way to a fourth place finish in the 2004 Heisman Trophy race and the number one selection in the NFL Draft where he was picked by the San Francisco 49ers.

Meyer moved on to Florida and he took Balis with him. The Gators went through one offseason of mat drills and they just concluded a 9-3 first year under Meyer's direction. Speaking from personal experience, Smith believes that Meyer's history will repeat itself in 2006.

"His history says you should expect great things this year," said Smith. "It's that second offseason that made all the difference for us at Utah. If the Florida players approach the offseason this year the way we did in the second season at Utah, then expect great things for the Gators."

The transformation of the Utes began with the first offseason workout program but that was just the beginning. It was that second offseason that set the stage for the great season.

"That first year you wonder what's with all the mat drills and the crazy stuff he [Meyer] does. You think, why are we doing this? What difference is this going to make?

"Well at Utah, we were talented but we weren't real tough. We made it through the first offseason but we still weren't all that tough even after all that we'd gone through. Then came the second offseason and we understood. We knew what it took to prepare for a game. We knew what it took to win. We bought into the concept and we worked harder than we'd ever worked. We bought into it completely. The guys who didn't believe the year before were either believers or they were gone."

From the mat drills and spring practice, the Utes went into the summer unified and determined to outwork any team in the country. Nobody on the team took a break. Smith had his receivers and running backs with him three or four times per week either in the film room or on the practice field.

"I threw those passes so many times that I could throw the routes with my eyes closed," he said.

In the fall all the hard work translated into the dream season. The Utes had one of the top three offenses in the country and the season was basically one blowout win after another.

"The more we worked together, the more we watched film together and the more we worked hard on the practice field the bigger the margin of victory when we won on Saturdays," he said. "You can't make big gains with the offense during the season because you've got to do whatever you can to get that W. It's in the offseason when you make the big strides. That's when you get everybody on the same page. You can't do it in the middle of the week. You build it in the offseason."

He watched the progress of the Gators carefully during the 2005 season, Meyer's first in Gainesville. He saw the struggles that Chris Leak went through trying to master Meyer's spread option offense and the parallels to his own struggles were remarkable.

"There were times my sophomore (2003) year that I was horrible," he said. "It [the offense] didn't come to me all at once."

He had moments during that first year when he felt like he had the offense down pat, but there were too many dry spells, times when it seemed like he was the square peg being forced into the round hole. There were games when the Utes got a score and then let the defense win the game. They beat arch-rival Brigham Young, 3-0, in their season-ender and they won the Liberty Bowl, 17-0.

The offense was a work in progress that first year at Utah. Meyer and his offensive coaching staff spent nearly the entire season tweaking to make the offense fit the skills of the players.

"I think these coaches do such a good job because that offense is not cookie cutter," he said. "You look at the Bowling Green and what we did at Utah, then look at what they're doing now at Florida. None of it looks the same. The Bowling Green offense and what we did at Utah was similar but there were tremendous differences just as I know what we did at Utah and what they did this year at Florida looks so different.

"The coaches will adjust the offense to play to the strengths of the people they have and sometimes that takes time to really find that out. They spent almost the entire first year at Utah learning our strengths and it wasn't until the second year that it all came together. The Utah offense was built around my strengths and it took awhile before we had the full package that worked."

In Meyer's first year at Florida, it seems the offense was a never-ending series of peaks and valleys highlighted by the struggles that quarterback Chris Leak went through trying to master his third new scheme in three years. Smith sees similarity in what he went through at Utah in 2003.

"Everything in this offense is focused on the quarterback and what he does best and it does take time to get everything working right," said Smith. "I think those last couple of games started showing the offense and what Chris can do. He had a lot more success and he had healthy receivers so that was a big deal too.

"This is year two coming up. I think you'll see a difference. I think Coach Meyer's history is going to repeat itself."

(TOMORROW: Smith talks about what it will take for Meyer's offense to work in the Southeastern Conference and he talks about his relationship with Meyer, Balis, and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen)

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