Florida Atlantic University quarterback Rusty Smith propelled the Owls to their first Sun Belt championship, the program's first bowl berth and postseason victory, establishing himself as a premier quarterback in Florida and nationally.
He has garnered several preseason accolades entering the team's season opener Aug. 30 at No. 11 University of Texas. Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger said Smith is a future first-round NFL Draft pick and has the potential to be one of the "best quarterbacks I've had," -- a list that includes NFL Hall of Famers Joe Namath, and former Hurricanes Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde, the 1986 Heisman Trophy winner.
Smith is reveling in his meteoric rise from a disregarded high school prospect to being among the 31 quarterbacks on this year's watch list for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's top quarterback. He also was selected as preseason Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. But he has vowed not to leave after his junior season to pursue his NFL dreams.
"I'm not going anywhere," Smith said, "even if after our bowl game I'm guaranteed to go in the top 10 of the first round. Coach Schnellenberger is the only coach in the entire country that offered me a scholarship and believed in me. I owe so much to this university and program that I can't imagine leaving a year early."
Smith said people on campus approach him to offer congratulations, and FAU students have inundated him with warm messages and friend requests on Facebook, a popular social-networking website (which he said he never turns down).
"You know the country song by Toby Keith, How Do You Like Me Now?!, Smith said. "It kind of sums up everything."
The lyrics include:
I only wanted to catch your attention
But you overlooked me somehow
. . . How do you like me now?
How do you like me now,
Now that I'm on my way?
Smith appears beyond being on his way. He won Sun Belt Player of the Year last season and was the New Orleans Bowl MVP after throwing five touchdowns against Memphis. He completed 281 of 479 pass attempts and finished with 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season.
Smith wants to at least match those numbers -- except for the interceptions, which he hopes to decrease. Schnellenberger would like for Smith to raise his completion percentage as well as throw more touchdown passes and gain more total yards. Schnellenberger believes that through more experience, particularly in big games, his prized quarterback will continue maturing.
The way the 74-year-old described it, Smith can be likened to a big pot of bouillabaisse (classic French shellfish and fish stew).
"You cook the pot and it's good, its ready to be consumed, but there's the last little finishing step to put that little bit of seasoning on," Schnellenberger said. "What he's already got is good, but with a little bit of seasoning he'll get near perfection."
Several teammates said one of most noticeable differences in the 6-5 Smith is his more svelte frame, translating to better mobility.
Gary Nord, the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said his top priority for Smith in the offseason was working on his body.
"He had horrible eating habits and extra body fat and didn't take care of his body the way he needs to," Nord said. "Our football team's success and his individual success is going to be determined by how good of shape he's in, and how much endurance he has as an individual.
"He came back in the best shape he's been in, in his life."
His body mass index -- a measures of body fat -- has dropped, Nord said. Smith had no fruits or vegetables in his diet before, but now can be seen eating salads and picking off the croutons, Nord noted.
Senior linebacker Frantz Joseph said Smith's offseason effort seems to have paid off.
"His body definitely wasn't the prettiest to look at," Joseph joked. "He looks way better when he takes his shirt off now. He's a much better athlete, he came a long way."
When Smith steps on the field at Texas Memorial Stadium, he said his performance should reflect his growth since making his collegiate debut Sept. 2, 2006, in a 54-6 loss to Clemson at Death Valley.
Smith recalled his first snap, a humbling start to his FAU career.
"It was a fake run to the left, I booted to the right and I tripped in front of [more than 80,000] people and made a bad throw into the dirt," Smith said. "It was an awful feeling. Everything was going so fast, everything was spinning, the crowd was on top of you. As that year went on and last year went by, everything has slowed down. I've gotten more experience. I've gained the confidence of my teammates.
"The transition is just unbelievable from the player that I was then to the player I am now."