FAU quarterback Rusty Smith enters 2007 as undisputed starter for Owls

BOCA RATON A year ago, Rusty Smith was a rookie about to make his first college start at Clemson in the intimidating stadium nicknamed Death Valley.

Coach Howard Schnellenberger had waited until 10 days before the season opener to decide between Smith, a redshirt freshman, and Sean Clayton, a junior who had started two games the previous season.

Schnellenberger likened Smith to another redshirt freshman quarterback he had used while at Miami a kid named Bernie Kosar, who led the Hurricanes to the national championship in his rookie year.

But Death Valley lived up to its reputation, as Smith and the Owls were buried 54-6, with Smith's role as starter another casualty.

"We put him in a position where he wasn't ready. We didn't have any other choices, so we had to play him," said FAU quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Gary Nord.

Clayton became the starter, but he and Smith got nearly equal playing time in games, until Clayton suffered a concussion and Smith started the final three games of the season. Smith passed for 1,285 yards with six touchdowns and eight interceptions.

By then, Schnellenberger had seen enough to make his decision on who would be under center this year. "Our quarterback situation is now settled; Rusty is the guy," Schnellenberger said.

It has remained settled, something that Smith said has helped him prepare for this season.

"It's a whole different atmosphere. I'm not looking over my shoulder. I know the job is mine, and I understand the responsibility that comes with that," said Smith, who at 6 feet 5, 215 pounds has the build for FAU's pro-style offense.

"He's done what I expected," Schnellenberger said. "You're going to see a much better quarterback this season."

The players have also noticed the difference in Smith.

"Last year he was nervous. He was under a lot of pressure, him and Sean going back and forth, back and forth," said running back Charles Pierre. "Now he's more confident, more at ease."

Smith makes sure to credit his line, running backs and receivers, something that does not escape them.

"You don't know how much I respect that," said offensive lineman John Rizzo.

"Last year was a learning experience," Smith said. "We had our struggles, but it just made us work harder. You'll see that this season. We're going to be a much better team."