Speedy Mr. Smith





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His words are short, his answers curt. For Utah's Steve Smith, life isn't about superfluous excuses - it's about quick solutions.

Ask the Utes' star wide receiver what went wrong in their opening loss to Arizona last week, and he'll tell you outright.

"Everything."

His resolution?

"Just play hard. That's it."

A little simplistic, a little premature even, but Smith didn't become one of Utah's most important players for lack of trying.

A native of Los Angeles, the senior attended University High School, where he was a football and track star. He once scored nine touchdowns in a three-game span, and also set the school record in the hurdles.

But like many athletes hoping to receive a scholarship to a Division I university, Smith ran into a roadblock. The ability was there - the academics were not. And so he enrolled at nearby Santa Monica Junior College.

"(When) he came to us in 1997, he was still in the development stage," recalls Robert Taylor, Smith's coach at Santa Monica. "But he was an outstanding athlete. The high school team he came from wasn't good, but he was good. He had to learn how to blend in here."

In high school, Smith was accustomed to having the ball in his hands and having plays running through him, says Taylor. But at the junior college, Smith learned the principles of college football.

"High school kids come into a community college, and they have to realize what college football is all about," Taylor explains. "It's more of a team game, and they have to learn how to play under control."

They also have to learn how to juggle football with academics, which for Smith - who still hoped to transfer to a Division I school -was the most difficult and necessary aspect of junior college.

"It was very helpful," says Smith, who fully credits Taylor with his success. "It showed me that I had to start taking school more seriously."

Under Taylor's tutelage, Smith blossomed into an honorable mention junior college All-American. His ability as a wide receiver and returner drew national attention.

Utah, Washington and San Jose State came calling. But of the three, there was only one school that offered what Smith was looking for - a throwing team.

"(Utah) recruited him to get the football to him," says Taylor. "They are utilizing his talents to make him outstanding."

Last season as a Ute, Smith caught 43 passes for 860 yards, including a 131-yard performance against San Diego State. Eight of the passes were for touchdowns, and Smith's 20 yards-per-catch average led the Mountain West Conference.

Despite his second-team all-conference status as a receiver, Smith has perhaps become best known for his special teams play.

Smith led the nation in punt returns through 10 games, and finished fifth with 29 punt returns for 495 yards. And like Cal's recently graduated Deltha O'Neal, Smith was also a scoring threat on special teams, returning three punts for touchdowns.

His stats might be even more impressive if he hadn't fractured a vertebrae during a punt return in the Utes' final regular-season game.

His secret?

"I never fair catch," says Smith. "I really don't. You make your first man miss, and then after that, it comes as it goes."

"(Steve) is in a class by himself," adds Utah coach Ron McBride. "He's fast, aggressive, mentally and physically tough, catches balls in a crowd, and makes plays."

Smith sees this season as an opportunity to establish himself as a big-play guy against good competition, and believes Utah's nonconference slate - which pits the Utes against three Pac-10 teams in as many weeks - can only help.

But he also knows that his success is largely dependent on the Utes' team play, which if it resembles anything like last week's loss to Arizona, won't get Smith or the Utes a return trip to a bowl.

"We depend on each other," says Smith. "But if we keep playing the way we are. . . I don't know."

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