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From Minor Leagues to Major Role at Arizona

College football: After trying baseball, Keith Smith now a dual-threat quarterback.

November 15, 1996|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crowds in Bristol and Bluefield and Burlington had gotten to him. He had seen more people at Newbury Park High games.

And the wee-hour bus rides through western Virginia and North Carolina and east Tennessee, from nine innings in a dimly lit ballpark to a daytime workout the next day in another town, with another game before a few hundred people in another dimly lit park were too much.

Television showed full stadiums and a charged atmosphere on fall Saturdays. It was a tease. That could have been him, Keith Smith thought, and the more he thought, the more he wondered if it could still be.

It could. Smith, once a minor league shortstop at a level so far from the majors that televised baseball looked almost surreal, is now a dual-threat college quarterback at Arizona, leading the Pacific 10 Conference in pass-completion percentage and leading the Wildcats in rushing yards.

"I just can't imagine a young player, a freshman player, doing any better job than he's done," Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said.

One of those jobs is driving opposing coaches nuts.

"He'll run like a quarterback sweep with the backs just leading him," said UCLA Coach Bob Toledo, whose Bruins have to deal with Smith on Saturday afternoon in Tucson. "He's a very good runner with outstanding speed and quickness. He can throw the ball too.

"He puts pressure on the secondary guys because they've got to cover for a long time. They can't ever leave their man because he'll find them."

He found plenty at Newbury Park, where he passed for a California high school record 9,971 yards in his career, 4,244 yards and 40 touchdowns in 1993 alone.

UCLA, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State wanted him. His arm and 4.47-second speed in the 40 made him look much taller than his 5 feet 10 inches in the eyes of recruiters, if not in his own. He looked in a mirror and saw problems dealing with 6-6, 290-pound defensive linemen.

They don't have defensive linemen in baseball, and they do have plenty of 5-10 shortstops. He had pitched and played the outfield at Newbury Park, moving to the infield as a senior and playing impressively enough for the Detroit Tigers to offer him $200,000 to sign, second-round money for a fifth-round draft choice.

"I just think this is what I needed to do to fulfill my dream of being a pro athlete," he said then.

"If I could do it again, I would have come to Arizona right out of high school," he says now.

He could have played football in the fall, baseball with the Wildcats in the spring. "I would love to be in a situation to do both," he said.

Smith played most of the 1994 season at Bristol, Va., in the rookie Appalachian League, batting .254. He batted .200 the last couple of weeks at Fayetteville, N.C., in the Class-A South Atlantic League.

Detroit has been repaid the $200,000 and set it aside in a trust fund. "We don't want the money, we want Keith Smith," says Tiger scout Dennis Lieberthal.

Detroit would let Smith play both sports and there is ample precedent. Ricky Williams plays in the Philadelphia Phillies' farm system in the summer and the Texas backfield in the fall. Smith played against Williams while at Fayetteville, N.C.

But, "I don't think the coaches here would like it," Smith says.

They have invested the future of the Arizona offense in him, from halftime of the second game of the season, at Iowa, when Homer Smith, the offensive coordinator, designated Keith Smith as the No. 1 quarterback.

Brady Batten, a more conventional quarterback who had gotten 75% of the preseason work as the starter, wasn't moving Arizona. Smith got a chance.

He finished out a 21-20 loss, then led a 41-0 victory over Illinois, running for a 73-yard touchdown. The Wildcats are 4-5, 2-4 in the Pac-10.

Since then, he has developed into the Pac-10's most exciting player. He has completed 62.7% of his 158 passes for 1,222 yards and 10 touchdowns, with only five interceptions, and rushed for 537 yards and seven touchdowns.

"I'm a throwing quarterback who runs," he said. "Early in the season, I was always looking to run. I would get back in the pocket, look over receivers and quickly run the ball.

"In the past few games, I've looked more to the opportunity to throw. I wish I could get more credit for passing. Sometimes I think they only look at my speed and think I'm a runner [who passes]."

He has a case.

"Man, he is the fastest quarterback I've ever seen and probably the fastest I will ever see," USC defensive lineman Darrell Russell said after the Trojans had beaten Arizona, 14-7, but had been torched with a 42-yard Smith run.

Two games ago, at California, Smith set an NCAA freshman record for total offense, with 502 yards in a 56-55 loss in four overtimes. He threw for 418 yards and five touchdowns in that game, and ran 20 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns.

And the Arizona offense is still evolving, with Homer Smith sitting up nights, figuring out more ways to use his quarterback:

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