Tuesday, December 22, 1998
Tale of Two QBs
Oregon's Akili Smith doesn'tBy Paul Arnett
lack for confidence, but he has
the talent to back it up
AKILI Smith can't take a corner in Eugene, Ore., without turning heads, but here, he's just another face in the crowd.
The Oregon quarterback walked freely through the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel yesterday morning not having to sign an autograph or strike the pose for an unknown adoring fan.
You get the feeling that a few years from now Smith won't be so fortunate should he have a date with destiny at the Pro Bowl.
That notion is not so far-fetched after watching what Smith accomplished his senior season for the Ducks. UCLA's Cade McNown and Kansas State's Michael Bishop might have had their names in the Heisman Trophy lights, but 15 years from now, it may be Smith who steals the show.
Those in the Pac-10 were savvy enough to vote him the league's 1998 co-offensive player of the year, the first in Oregon history. The San Diego resident also was co-first team All-Pac-10.
Why, you ask? Well, Smith finished first in the nation in yards per attempt at 10.18. He was second in passing efficiency (170.4 rating), fourth in touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (4.29), fifth in touchdown passes (30), and eighth in passing yards (3,307) and total offense (317.27 yards a game).
Granted, that's not totally unexpected when considering he was an All-America his sophomore season at Grossmont (Calif.) Junior College. That year, he threw for 3,212 yards and 32 touchdowns.
But junior college is one thing and Division I is quite another, something Smith experienced last season with the Ducks. Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti saw the potential. He just wasn't sure it would be realized in time.
"Two years in Division I isn't a lot of time to develop into what I believe is the best quarterback in the country," Bellotti said.
"But that's just what Akili did. He grew and matured so much in one year. He had all the God-given talent in the world, but he became a student of the game last off-season. He learned his lessons."
Not all of them have been easy ones for Smith, who left legendary Lincoln High in San Diego as a 17-year-old for a $103,000 signing bonus by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
By Smith's own admission, he hung out on too many street corners to ever get the hang of a dipping curveball or nasty slider. He said he was never focused on the game, and consequently, he came home wondering what dreams may come.
"I signed with San Diego State out of high school," said Smith, who was that city's top prep player. "But after talking with my family, I thought it best to get away, so, I went to Oregon.
"I matured as a baseball player. Those years helped me grow. But sometimes, I wish I had gone straight into football. No telling where I would be."
There were several times when Bellotti wondered the same thing, but for different reasons. On more than one occasion, Smith's troubled past caught up to him.
Last January, Smith was charged for driving under the influence after admitting to police that he had been drinking. A week later, he and a teammate were charged with assault and trespassing, stemming from an incident at a bar in Springfield, Ore.
These incidents, coupled with a dropping GPA, forced Bellotti to suspend him. At that point, Smith wondered what was next.
Over the summer, he redoubled his efforts in the classroom to keep his eligibility in place. He attended a school to take care of the drunk-driving charge and was acquitted for the bar room incident.
After surviving life's lessons, what awaited him on the field was easy by comparison. Granted, his teammates didn't welcome him with open arms, but he won them over one at a time.
"To me, Akili is the best quarterback around," wide receiver Damon Griffin said. "If you hang around him long enough, he'll tell you that here, and then show you on the field."
Smith believes he's the best in a long line of talented Oregon quarterbacks. Prior to Smith, the Ducks sent 11 men under center to the NFL, including ABC-TV color man Dan Fouts, who is covering Friday's Jeep Aloha Bowl between No. 21-ranked Oregon and Colorado.
"To be quite honest, I do (believe he's the best Oregon quarterback)," Smith said. "Those guys were great quarterbacks, but the one thing I have that they didn't have is mobility, athleticism and strength. That pretty much separates me.
"I didn't tell (Dan Fouts) that. As a matter of fact, he told me he has watched quarterbacks all across the country and he hadn't seen anyone better. Those were real encouraging words."
Not that he needed any. But Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel had kind words for Smith as well.
"He's special," Neuheisel said. "He has all the tools you look for in the quarterback position. He ended up at Oregon. And obviously, they've used him very well. He's been extremely effective and that's why their offense rings up about 480-odd yards a game. It will be tall order to get him contained."
See also: Notebook