I'm sitting down this week with West Virginia's Geno Smith -- the hottest quarterback in college football and perhaps the fastest-rising prospect on the 2013 draft board -- to watch tape with him and get inside his football mind and see how he prepares on a weekly basis.
In advance of that sit-down, the results of which will air on "College GameDay" (10 a.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN), I went back and watched three of Smith's game tapes from 2011, as well as the Baylor and Maryland games from this season, with the intention of going to Morgantown with a variety of clips that illustrate his strengths and weaknesses, how he makes reads, and other factors in his game.
This week's edition of the Nickel Package will look at five things that jumped out to me during that initial tape session, including areas in which he has improved, how he compares to one of last year's top quarterback prospects, and what Smith has left to prove.
Area of improvement 1: Touch
One of the knocks on Smith during our preseason evaluation was his lack of touch, that he often unleashed a fastball on his receiver no matter what the route was. It happens only occasionally this season, and Smith has learned to take something off the ball and also mastered the trajectory of certain throws.
His 7-yard, back-corner touchdown pass to J.D. Woods in the first quarter last week against Baylor is a perfect example. Smith got the ball out in time and with enough air under it to drop it in the bucket in the back left corner of the end zone. A line-drive throw in that situation would allow the defensive back to get his hands up and make a play, and too much air under it would have forced Woods to stop at the end line, allowing the defensive back to adjust and play the ball.
Smith is also more consistent this season in terms of trajectory on the deep ball, throwing it out and allowing his receivers to run under it and catch passes in stride.
Area of improvement 2: Not locking on to primary
Tape from early in 2011 shows Smith locking his eyes on his primary receiver and failing to take his eyes away in time, which led to him either forcing balls into coverage or taking sacks after failing to get to his second or third reads quickly enough. We noted in his preseason draft evaluation that he improved as last season progressed, but he's even better in 2012.
Smith is showing good eye discipline, keeping his eyes on the safety early and not going to his primary read too soon, and once he make his primary read, trusting his eyes and getting further into his progression if he doesn't see what he wants initially.
Where Smith is better than RG3: Pocket manipulation, mechanics/accuracy
I've gotten plenty of questions in recent days about how Smith compares to last year's No. 2 overall pick and current Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, so I went back and watched last year's Oklahoma-Baylor game to refresh my memory on RG3.
Griffin is faster on a straight line than Smith, but Smith has a clear advantage in terms of manipulating the pocket. He feels the outside rush naturally and steps up to avoid it, and moves well laterally when pressured up the middle. And Smith almost always keeps his eyes downfield when moving in the pocket. I saw only one instance in the five games when Smith moved his eyes to the pass rush while sliding in the pocket.
Yes, RG3 has quick feet and made a lot of guys miss in the pocket, but in college he didn't often move his feet and buy time within the pocket, then reset and find a receiver. Griffin usually just bolted the pocket and relied on his rare running ability.
Smith, on the other hand, is looking to continue the play from the pocket, buy time for his receivers and make a play through the air. He and the Mountaineers' wideouts do a great job on the scramble drill, and it starts with Smith's ability to slide in the pocket, elude pressure, reset his feet and make an accurate throw when a receiver breaks open.
Smith also has an advantage at this point in his career in terms of mechanics, which leads to better accuracy. Griffin entered 2011 as a great athlete whose mechanics were about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 but moved to somewhere in the 8-9 range by the time the season ended. Smith started further along, going from a 7 to an 8 to a 9-plus this season. Why is that important?
Changing a quarterback's mechanics can be a dicey proposition, one that doesn't always go well. Just look at Tim Tebow. Scouts want to know a quarterback has a natural feel for how to deliver the ball, that he's comfortable in his motion and it's ingrained. The difference in their accuracy isn't huge, but mechanics are a big part of that difference.
Where RG3 is better than Smith: Running threat, arm strength, frame
Griffin has world-class track speed and has a clear edge on Smith in terms of running ability. Smith has adequate-to-good speed and can pick up a first down with his feet, but he's nowhere near RG3 as a running threat.
And while both can snap throws off with a quick delivery, RG3's arm is a little stronger. That shows up on a play from last year against Oklahoma, when Griffin unleashed a 25-yard laser on a deep out while being buried by a pass-rusher in his own end zone with other defenders in his face. Smith might make that throw, too, but not with the same velocity and RPMs as Griffin. Smith can certainly make all of the NFL throws, but RG3 just puts a few more miles per hour on his throws.
Griffin also had more bulk on his frame coming out of college than Smith does. They are essentially the same height (6-foot-2¾ for Smith, 6-2⅜ for Griffin), but RG3 checked in at 231 pounds at the NFL combine while the preseason measurements I got from an NFL scout put Smith at 208. It's not a huge deal at this point, but it does raise some concern about Smith holding up during a 16-game grind in the NFL.
What's left for Smith: Improved competition, adding bulk
Griffin exploded on the scene last season and quickly became the face of college football, and I'm interested to see if Smith handles the bright lights as well as RG3 did. Can Smith step up as expectations increase, and lead his team to big wins against a higher level of competition during the Big 12 schedule? The test begins this week at Texas, and adds Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma down the road.
Finally, Smith surely will follow the program all top prospects adhere to and change his body for the better as the draft process unfolds. If he can work with trainers and get his weight up to the 220-pound range without affecting his mechanics or mobility, that will ease some durability concerns.
Staying healthy would help, too, but that's out of Smith's hands for the most part. He can play smart and avoid unnecessary punishment, but Smith shouldn't waste one second beyond that worrying about something he can't control.