This Saturday in Sun Devil Stadium should be a historic day for fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith. With 99 career catches for 1,117 yards, Smith is just one reception away from tying Bob Moore for the Stanford tight ends career receptions record of 100, set 34 years ago. He has 44 receptions this year alone, which puts him within striking distance of the Greg Baty's single season tight end receptions record (61) from 19 years ago. Smith is currently averaging 5.5 catches per game, third best among all players and number one among tight ends in the Pac-10, which would put him on pace to exactly tie Baty.
The 6'5" standout athlete of course is on a hotter pace than that, having pulled down nine catches against Oregon and 10 grabs at UCLA, for his last two games. While the remainder of the Cardinal offense has had its struggles, Smith is a shining star who is getting every opportunity he imagined for this season. The Colorado native gave a hard look at jumping to the NFL last winter, with a lock as a draft pick but unlikely to go as highly as he desired. Sources told Smith and his family that he would likely go early the second day, but he knew he had first round ability and could earn himself a richer selection and payday with another year of work. Anyone who has watched Stanford play this year has been immediately struck by the tight end's ability to get open, and then his strength to pick up tough yards and first downs after the catch.
"I just see marked improvement across the board. It's a big difference," Smith says of his 2004 performances versus the 2003 season. "I definitely run my routes better, and I have a better feel for what defenses are going to do. My run blocking is better. I'm more aggressive and I play faster."
The Stanford senior hands a lot of credit to new tight ends coach George McDonald, who was a wide receiver in college at Illinois and has brought an improved knowledge of the receiving game to the Card's tight ends.
"He's really helped me run my routes and keep me aggressive, playing through the whistle," Smith explains. "When we scout opponents a lot of times we look at film from last year against them, and I can't believe that was me. I don't even know what I was thinking."
That is not to say the 255-pound senior has been without his foibles this year. Though he snared double digit receptions last Saturday in Pasadena, Smith had a number of very uncharacteristic drops. One one series, he dropped back-to-back passes, turning a sure first down into a punting situation. Had he converted the balls he dropped, Smith would have been in record-breaking territory. The UCLA secondary played the outside and deep parts of the field with man coverage, leaving him all kinds of room to maneuver in zones in the middle of the field. But mental lapses cost him and the Card critical catches.
"I was losing focus at the wrong time," Smith admits. "For me to do that at those points in the game, it was really frustrating."
Though he will soon write his name atop the Stanford record books, the veteran tight end is more concerned with winning than his stats. His statistically weakest game this year came in Pullman, when he caught just one pass. The senior leader points to that game, however, as the model for what he hopes this offense can replicate in their remaining games.
"We want to try to take our shots this week [against Arizona State]. We haven't done that the last few weeks," Smith opines. "We have to get back to big plays - 25 yards or more. We want at least five big plays per game. Like Washington State, for example. That turned the game around."
Smith may be at the height of his playmaking, but the Stanford offense is trending down. After averaging nearly 34 points per game in their first four contests of the year, when the Cardinal surged to a 3-1 record, the last four games have seen a less than 13 points per game and a commensurate 1-3 record. The drop-off reeks of the 2003 downturn that ended in a terrible slide with three ugly losses. As a fifth-year senior and leader on offense, Smith is as disappointed as anybody with the current scoring woes. Is he as worried as fans about a repeat of last season's finish?
"I'm not even thinking about last year," he responds. "It's obvious that we're not executing, but we've totally forgotten about last year."
"This offense is better, and I know this is something we're capable of doing," Smith continues. "A lot of times [vs. UCLA] it was guys running the wrong routes. It's fundamentals, and we've gotten away from those the last few weeks."
Regardless of the outcome these next three games, Smith will soon conclude his college career at The Farm and be thrust into the whirlwind world of the NFL and its draft process. The Stanford senior my have passed on the NFL Draft last year, but that scarcely delayed its weight on his shoulders. He does not actively scour the draft prognostications for his projected selection. He doesn't need to, with all the agents constantly calling to tell him of his rising stock.
"They've been calling since the summer, and it's non-stop now," he laments. "I compare it to the college recruiting process, all over again. Everybody has something to sell, and you have to be cautious. It can be overwhelming at times."
Smith tries to not think about the draft process that will envelop him in the winter, though the attention will be hard to avoid. Barring a complete collapse in his remaining games, Smith projects to dominate the Pac-10 in receiving statistics and should be a lock for First Team All-Conference at the tight end position. He was snubbed this summer when the John Mackey Award, handed out each December to college football's top tight end, released their 28-man Watch List (including six Pac-10 players) and left him out in the cold, but Smith is being widely hailed as one of the nation's best. Smith will have the last laugh next April when his name is called early on the first day of the NFL Draft. Scout.com's NFL Draft experts currently have him ranked as the #1 tight end prospect in the nation for the 2005 draft class.
"It's something I'm not even thinking about right now," the tight end offers.
He has unfinished business to tend to, starting this Saturday in Tempe. A man on a mission, you don't want to bet against Alex Smith on any team in any game.
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