"There were times my sophomore (2003) year that I was horrible," said Alex Smith, Utah's quarterback in both 2003 and 2004. "It [the offense] didn't come to me all at once."
Smith's running numbers were decent in 2003 but his passing numbers weren't nearly what the coaching staff envisioned. Running the ball was all new to him and the many decisions he had to make with the running game distracted from the passing game. Year one wasn't a total disaster but it was one of high peaks and very low valleys.
"A lot of ups and a lot of downs that first year," said Smith Sunday at the US Army All-American Bowl/Reebok National Combine at the Alamo Dome. "There were times when everything ran the way you draw it up and there were times when we looked lost."
The momentum for Utah's unbeaten, record-setting 12-0 run in 2004 had its beginning back in the winter months, starting just two weeks after the Liberty Bowl win. The taste of success, particularly closing out the year with a win over the ultimate arch-rival (BYU) and a bowl victory created an opportunity for urgency and anticipation to merge.
"Because we had some success we wanted more," said Smith. "We were a decent team, a good offense but the leap that pushed us over the edge to become a great team and the best offense in the nation was that second offseason when we had all the receivers, all the offensive linemen, everybody in there every day putting in the work."
By the time the workouts for the second season began, the Utes were all too familiar with Meyer's way of doing things. They were accustomed to the way Meyer and his assistants were so heavily involved in every aspect of their lives and they knew what to expect in the mat drills from Meyer and from the barrel-chested slave driver, also known as the strength and conditioning coach, Matt Balis.
It took some getting used to in that first year. No one was accustomed to coming out of class and seeing an assistant coach sitting on a bench, waiting to see just who was and wasn't attending class. No one was accustomed to coaches who knew the homework assignments, test schedules and due dates for papers. No one was accustomed to coaches who randomly dropped by their dorm rooms or apartments --- especially a California-cool kid like Smith who appreciated his freedom.
"That really took some getting used to," he said. "Every class was checked, every assignment you had was checked. You were going to go to class. You were going to learn to do everything the right way or else you weren't going to be there.
"It was hard to accept at first but it made our team so close and we learned that they do this because they really care about us and want us to be successful. They weren't trying to run our lives but they were trying to show us the right way to live and to do things and that carried over into our offseason workouts, our practices, everything we did. All the coaches' involvement in what we did paid off my junior year (2004)."
Smith had his bachelor's degree by the end of his sophomore year. Enrolled in grad school, he only had to take a couple of courses so he started spending as much time as possible with Dan Mullen, the quarterback coach. Smith was a sponge, absorbing everything Mullen was teaching and continually asking questions. He didn't just want to know the offense he wanted to know why certain plays worked in certain situations and why plays were called in certain sequences. Every nuance of the offense intrigued him.
One day in the summer of 2004 he was sitting around talking offense with Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy when Meyer and the rest of the offensive staff came into the room to start a meeting. Since no one asked Smith to leave, he just sat there and took notes. That was a trend-setting day.
"They let me stay in there and next thing you know, I was sitting in on all the offensive meetings," he said. "This is a quarterback-first offense so I was getting a chance to learn everything. They started letting me be a part of the actual game planning.
"It got to a point where they started asking me 'What do you think about this play?' Or 'What would you run here?' Or 'What would you run in this situation?' This gave me such a greater knowledge of the offense. I knew what they were thinking about. I knew what they saw and why they were calling the play."
In year one, Smith was a good runner which surprised him since he had never been a running quarterback. In year two, he became a truly effective runner. The difference was a combination of maturity and understanding that the offense works best when the quarterback takes what he calls "the hidden yardage" by taking yardage on the ground that's given to him.
There is this perception that Smith was this game-breaker type of runner who piled up huge yards. The perception and the reality are two different things.
"I ran for 800 yards my junior year but I broke maybe one 70-yard run and the next longest was maybe a 20-yard run," he said. "To make this offense work you have to make a lot of smart decisions and take yards when they give them to you. Second and six or second and five is a success. You've put your team into a good second down position. If you have to pull the ball down, get the five yards and take a hit, that's what it takes but when you do it, the offense really works."
Those four and five yard gains became the equalizer in the offense. Rarely was Utah caught in second and long or third and long situations because Smith would take the positive yards. His willingness to take the yards wherever they were given made teams account for him as a runner on every play, thus destroying their plans to double team one of the wide receivers.
"There is so much hidden yardage in games," he said. "A successful game for me --- you get 10-12 carries and you can get 50-60-70 yards --- meant getting that hidden and unexpected yardage to get my team an extra first down or put us in second down with short yardage. You scramble when you have to and you take off and run when they don't account for you but that's hidden yardage which can break open a game.
"That's something I did a good job of at Utah and for Chris to make it work and have success he's got to give the position that multi-dimensional facet. It doesn't happen overnight and people need to be patient. My junior year I was a much better runner than I was my sophomore year. You go back and look at the tape my sophomore year and I wasn't a very good runner."
In year one at Florida, the spread option offense was deemed a dud by some of the "experts" who said that Southeastern Conference defenses are just too fast and too good for a "gimmick" offense to work. Smith laughs at that notion. Having gone through the learning process, he says that it takes time to get the hang of all the nuances and it takes game film for the coaches to understand the strengths of each player, particularly the quarterback.
"The Utah offense was built around my strengths and it took awhile before we had a full package that worked," he said. "Everything in this offense is focused on the quarterback and what he does best and it does take time to get everything working right. I think those last couple of games started showing the offense with what Chris can do. He had a lot more success and he had healthy receivers so that was a big deal too.
"A year of experience for Chris will make a huge difference. He had to get used to designed runs for the quarterback this year and learn that he needs to take the yards. He's been taught all his life to keep looking, keep looking for an open receiver but in this offense you go get the yards and make the other team account for the quarterback."
In his two years at Utah, he built strong relationships both with Meyer and with Mullen. He feels the strength of those relationships carried over onto the field and had a direct affect on what happened on the playing field.
"Hanging around with Coach Meyer I learned so much about how to be a leader," Smith said. "I've heard people say that it's all such a fake but it isn't. That's the way he is. He is a strong principled man who believes in himself and in doing things the right way. You follow him and he makes you a better person, not just a better football player. He's into team building and a team that follows him is going to do great things."
The relationship with Mullen became so strong that on Saturdays when Utah had an open date or perhaps had played a Thursday night game, he was at the coach's house and the two of them were watching college football, breaking down what they were seeing on the tube.
"I would just go over to his house and hang around," said Smith. "He'd cook food and we'd eat and watch football all day. We'd critique the other teams and try to find things that might work in what we were doing. It got to the point that we were just always on the same page all the time.
"He [Mullen] really knows what he's doing. He's an in your face coach who is not afraid to tell you what you're doing wrong or what you need to do to improve. He's like Coach Meyer --- a tough love kind of guy. I appreciate what he did because he let me grow as a person and grow as a quarterback. Once I understood that everything he was doing was trying to bring out the best in me, I started improving the way they wanted me to. Good things started happening."
He spent his rookie year in the NFL hurt part of the time, learning on the fly the remainder of the time. The San Francisco 49ers ranked as one of the worst teams in the league but a lot of that was due to constantly changing personnel due to a lot of injuries.
"Because of injuries we started four different quarterbacks," he said. "We were young to begin with but when you have those kind of injuries, especially at quarterback, it's really tough. The NFL isn't like college where you have your redshirts and walkons to form a scout team that you can go against.
"You only get limited reps in practice and most of the reps you get are actually in games. They'll give you a new play on the sideline and you're in the game next series putting it in. That's why it's so hard for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL. You're getting fewer reps than you ever got in college so you have to get your reps while you're getting your experience. That's a tough thing to do."
He's taking a little bit of time off now but soon he will be back in the film room, learning from watching film and throwing to receivers. He's determined to get better, expecting that he will experience a huge jump in productivity in year two in the offense in the pros just as it did in college.
To those who have their doubts about Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators, he simply says, "Look at his history. Look at what has happened at Bowling Green and at Utah. If the Gators do things in this offseason with that same urgency and same intensity as we did it at Utah, great things are going to happen."