Schnellenberger: FAU QB Smith is 1st-round talent
Redshirt junior quarterback went from afterthought to bona fide NFL prospect
BOCA RATON - Florida
Atlantic recruiters stumbled across him in Jacksonville.
A lanky kid with a weird delivery that looked like he was throwing a javelin rather than a football. There wasn't competition for Rusty Smith, no other Bowl Subdivision teams to beat out.
"I had one option," said Smith, now a junior, "and I took it."
Three years later and FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger is telling everyone who will listen that Smith will be a first-round NFL draft pick one day.
Not just saying it, but guaranteeing it.
"It is a done deal," Schnellenberger said. "Some are getting drafted that aren't as good as he is right now. I don't understand why anybody questions me."
College football analyst Phil Steele isn't questioning the 74-year-old Schnellenberger, who has recruited and/or coached Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Browning Nagle and Jeff Brohm during his career.
"FAU's got one of the best quarterbacks in the country," said Steele, who put FAU at 37 in his preseason Top 40, 11 spots ahead of Miami, based in large part to the high-scoring offense that Smith runs.
NFL draft expert Rob Rang of NFLDraftscout.com said he has Smith ranked as the eighth-best junior quarterback and a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
This ranking is conservative, as Smith does have an excellent combination of size and arm strength and significantly improved last season, Rang said. "He makes some legitimate first-round caliber throws and was terrific in the bowl game last year against Memphis. He certainly caught my attention with that game, and he's one I'm absolutely watching this season."
While Smith, who was recently named to the Walter Camp watch list, is gaining national attention, he started last year as a complete unknown.
He was a redshirt sophomore coming off an up-and-down season, getting four starts and finishing with 1,285 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions.
But Smith soon showed he had made huge strides in the offseason as the Owls had a breakout season in their seventh year.
Smith led FAU to an 8-5 season that included the Sun Belt title and win over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl. FAU had become the youngest program to qualify for a bowl, and Smith had become the Sun Belt Player of the Year after throwing for 3,688 yards and 32 touchdowns, both school and conference records.
In today's spread offenses that feature quarterbacks who need to be able to run as well as pass, Smith (6 feet 5, 230 pounds) is a throwback.
But he is perfect for Schnellenberger's pro-style offense that relies on a tall, pocket passer who can pick apart defenses.
Smith said he does not feel added pressure from Schnellenberger's guarantee.
"It is Howard Schnellenberger, who has coached so many great quarterbacks," Smith said. "To know that he has confidence in me makes me feel a lot better going into these big games."
One of those big games is Aug. 30, when FAU travels to Austin to face No. 11 Texas.
Schnellenberger used to call games like this "advanced training," his code for what he expected to be a learning but losing experience.
But the day after FAU won the New Orleans Bowl, Schnellenberger announced FAU was no longer fodder for the big boys and scratched those two words from his vocabulary.
So FAU is starting the season with the goal of getting to a BCS bowl game, which means they need to go undefeated.
"It may be a farfetched goal, but why set a goal if it is not going to be a high goal?" Smith said.