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September 3, 2009In Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith's recollections of his first career start it isn't the score of the game, the yards he threw for or particular play that stands out three years later.
It's the nerves, the queasy butterflies he felt as he took the field his freshman season before 80,000 Clemson fans in Death Valley that he recalls most.
Smith blames much of his jittery play on those nerves and shoulders a lot for the 54-6 loss that day in 2006. The freshman completed just 9-of-21 passes for 104 yards in the loss and was benched the following week.
"It got to me a lot," Smith said Monday. "I'm not going to lie. If you were there you could tell. I was fazed by it."
Smith did eventually earn his starting job back and three years and more than 30 starts later, the fifth-year senior quarterback leads his Owls into Saturday's 6 p.m. kick-off against Nebraska as an NFL prospect with no plans to let nerves sidetrack his goal of earning his team just its second victory ever over a team from a BCS conference.
Smith is already the Owls and the Sun Belt Conference's all-time leading passer with more than 6,000 career yards and 62 touchdowns passes. He also has both of the MVP trophies from the school's bowl games the past two seasons.
A good fall camp of work has the quarterback confident the Owls have put last year's 1-5 start behind them and built on last season's 6-1 finish, capped by a a 24-21 victory over Central Michigan 24-21 in the Motor Cit Bowl last December.
Smith admits it wasn't an easy turnaround. After going 8-5 and winning the Sun Belt Conference title in 2007 in his first year as a full-time starter, Smith and the Owls seemingly took a step back last season. Smith tore through conference defenses in 2007 for 3,688 yards and 32 touchdowns on his way to league player of the year honors but the Owls limped out of the gate to a 1-5 start last year. Smith finished with good numbers last season (3,224 yards, 24 touchdowns) but threw 14 interceptions and struggled with accuracy against arguably the Owls' three toughest opponents in losses at Texas, Michigan State and Minnesota. In those three games Smith completed less than 50 percent of his passes, threw five interceptions and the Owls were out scored 106-13.
Smith's honest about that 1-5 start now: his team was overconfident and it showed in their play.
"Overconfidence would probably be replaced with cockiness if I had too look back and say something about last year," said Smith. "A lot of us were way to arrogant and way to cocky. We stuck our foot in our mouth a couple times. So that's something we've definitely learned our lesson about. And I really don't want our team to be in that situation again."
As much as anything Smith has learned from last season is that adversity can, given the right circumstances, be a good thing.
"It was just a really bad first six games," said Smith. "Now, looking back on it I can see what I was doing wrong and how I was I able to overcome it for the second half of the season. Just the experience of being down and not playing real well and being able to overcome that with the help of my close friends and teammates really helps me going into the future."
What lay in Smith's future may be an NFL roster. As many as 15 NFL scouts are expected to attend Saturday's game. Smith is already listed among the top 10 senior quarterbacks and projected as a high NFL draft pick next April.
Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger, no stranger to NFL-quality quarterback play as the former head coach at the University of Miami, gives the 6-foot-5, 230 pound quarterback high praise, comparing him to former "students" Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde.
"He has the same kind of abilities and preparation as Kelly, Kosar and Testaverde had and I expect him to be a high round choice. And I expect him to be as well prepared as any quarterback drafted into the NFL the coming year," said Schnellenberger.
Not bad for a lanky quarterback from a run-oriented offense at Jacksonville's Sandalwood High School who received just one Division I offer and did not receive any ranking by Rivals evaluators in 2005.
"I'm pretty much a guy that has taken the situation here and ran with it," said Smith. "I can't really say I've overachieved, there's no such thing as overachieving. You achieve everything in life that was meant to be, everything happens for a reason. I was overlooked in high school because I was supposed to play at FAU and be taught by Coach Schnellenberger and (former offensive coordinator) Coach (Gary) Nord."
Smith knows what he and his team are in for Saturday. He knows how many starters return on what he called an "extremely big and extremely strong" Nebraska defense and all about defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. And while he's aware it won't be an easy task to come out with a win on Saturday, unlike that first start before 80,000 orange clad Clemson fans two years ago he isn't planning on being phased by the Blackshirts or 80,000 red clad Husker fans.
"We've played these teams before and we feel as long as we can limit our mistakes, limit our turnovers to as few as possible and limit our penalties to as few as possible. We think we'll be able to put some points on the board and hang with them as long as possible."
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