Dozens of college scouts flocked to Alex Smith’s high school football games at Helix High in San Diego, CA. They traveled from all over the country: SEC schools, Big Ten, Big 12 and the conference formerly known as the Pac-10 all carrying hopes of attracting the team’s star recruit. The recruitment battle was on and eventually Reggie Bush committed to the USC Trojans. Wait, what about Alex Smith? Well, despite leading his team to a 25-1 record and winning team MVP, he remained in the shadow of his teammate. Overlooked by the scouts in attendance, Smith ended up at the University of Utah (a member of the MWC at the time), the perfect place for someone who thrives out of the spotlight.
And thrive would be an understatement. After an injury to their starter, Smith stepped in and never looked back. In his brief yet illustrious career at Utah he finished with a 21-1 record while breaking a myriad of records. And to place a cherry on top of the sundae, he helped bust the BCS by absolutely destroying Pitt at the Fiesta Bowl in his last collegiate start.
Suddenly the spotlight was aimed right at him as he prepared for the 2005 NFL draft. No more flying under the radar, at least not for another few years. Scouts now showed up to watch him, not his teammates. They traveled from all over the country: NFC teams and AFC teams all sent scouts that drooled over his size, intelligence, athleticism and potential. With the No. 1 pick, the San Francisco 49ers selected Alex Smith.
The spotlight was now brighter as local fans piled expectations squarely on his shoulders. His Reeboks were no longer ordinary cleats as he donned the red and gold but symbols of so much more. They were Montana’s, Young’s and even Garcia’s to a lesser extent. The shoes would remain unfilled during his first six seasons in the league, a roller-coaster ride no sane man would ever willingly take. The downs outweighed the ups as he struggled with injuries, an underachieving supporting cast, a carousel of coaches/coordinators and his own inconsistent performances. As the spotlight dimmed, there were still flashes of potential that loyal supporters clung to.
Last year was a perfect cliff-notes version of Smith’s career. A defensive-minded head coach handed Smith the reigns as starter. He, along with others, underperformed as they struggled to an 0-5 record. The offensive coordinator was shown the door. Alex would then suffer an injury in his next outing. Upon healing he was benched for the current QB of the Omaha Nighthawks (UFL), Troy Smith. Alex would eventually win his job back, lose it again and then win it back. Up and down. Up and down and down again went the ride. The glimpses of hope still sparkled in the mud as he finished off the season on a string of successful starts. But, by then, he was off the radar.
Very few expected him to return to SF, even himself. A lockout-induced offseason would change all of that, romantics call it fate. Jim Harbaugh, the QB guru himself, was hired as head coach and no way would he bring back that bust. Right? Wrong. From the get-go, Harbaugh applauded Smith and publicly expressed his confidence in him. And he actually backed it up. Smith won the QB battle and would begin yet another season with yet another offensive coordinator. But with different results. The coaches have set Smith up for success and he has responded each and every time this year. The media has continued to focus elsewhere and Smith doesn’t mind that one bit. Look the other way and he’ll do his job.
He has flown, nay soared, under the radar with career numbers this year. While his total yardage is low, he boasts a top 10 QB rating, 62 percent completion percentage and a 13 to five touchdown to interception ratio. Most importantly, he has helped his team to a 9-2 record as they sit comfortably in the driver’s sear for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The spotlight has without doubt returned, hopefully the ride is a good one this time.