ORONO — Ten days before the 2011 opener, Warren Smith was still dueling for the starting quarterback job at the University of Maine.
The senior from Forked River, N.J., had won the spot each of his first two seasons, but his propensity for taking unnecesary risks and throwing interceptions had significantly hampered his effectiveness.
Smith was again named the starter Aug. 25 and ever since, he has demonstrated considerable growth and maturity. Now, he’s among the top quarterbacks in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Saturday afternoon, Smith will direct the offense as seventh-ranked UMaine (7-1, 5-0 CAA) entertains upstart Towson University in a key league game set for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff at Alfond Stadium.
“I think he’s probably the most improved quarterback in the conference and would be a guy that would garner recognition at some point at the end of the (season),” said Rhode Island head coach Joe Trainer.
Smith, who was benched for last year’s game at Towson in favor of classmate Chris Treister, has been instrumental in UMaine’s rise to the top of the conference standings and the national rankings.
“We’re incredibly pleased with the progress that he’s made in the last year,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “I think that he’s made a tremendous amount of improvements as a result of his commitment to getting better.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Smith is still the same fun-loving young man with a strong arm who transferred from Iona College when it disbanded its football program after the 2007 season.
The fundamental change in Smith this season is his understanding of UMaine’s offensive concepts and his ability to read opposing defenses and recognize in-game situations.
Rather than try to emulate NFL hero Brett Favre, who had a penchant for trying to make game-changing plays, however risky, Smith has learned to play with restraint and poise.
“The biggest thing that he’s doing is he’s making smart decisions with the football,” said UMaine offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin. “He tried to do too much with the football last year and at times he got himself in trouble.”
Smith ranks second in the CAA having passed for 250.4 yards per game and is third in pass efficiency at 148.1.
He has attempted a league-high 263 passes and has completed 174 (.662) good for 2,003 yards. He has thrown for 14 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
Last season, he was picked off 10 times.
Smith and his coaches agree the trials and tribulations of the previous two seasons at Maine have helped build the foundation of his outstanding play in 2011. That includes competing against Treister for the starting spot.
“The biggest thing, I think, is experience,” Smith said. “I’ve been in the offense three years now. I believe I’m making a lot smarter decisions.”
It seems to have clicked recently with Smith, who said his extensive offseason film study helped him realize where his mistakes were coming from as he tried to read defenses and make plays.
Bourgoin has seen continued growth in Smith’s ability to understand what UMaine is trying to accomplish offensively and to work within that framework.
“Up until this year, I think he had a pretty good grasp, but I think he was trying to do too much and I don’t think he understood the offense, the schemes, completely,” Bourgoin said.
Rather than force a throw, Smith has learned to either tuck it and run or throw the ball away in the name of having another down to make something happen.
Smith explained that the collective commitment of the upperclassmen, who remained in Orono during the summer to work out together, has paid dividends in their improved performance.
“It’s the chemistry with the receivers,” he said. “We worked on timing, throwing and catching, and it shows.”
Smith is quick to spread the credit for the Bears’ offensive success. He lauded the efforts of the offensive line and running backs, the development of the receivers, and the effective game plans implemented by the coaches.
The Bears’ play-action passing has been outstanding because of their ability to run the ball.
“He has a much better command of the offense,” said Cosgrove, who joked that Smith, who changed from jersey No. 13 to No. 8, even looks like a different player. “He’s learned from his mistakes and he makes decisions that you’re proud to see him make.”
Smith is already among the leading passers in UMaine history. He needs 195 yards this season to break into the top 10 for a single season.
He has thrown for 6,068 yards at UMaine, good for fifth on the career list behind Jake Eaton (7,145 yds., 1999-2002). Including his freshman season at Iona, Smith has passed for 7,579 yards and 44 touchdowns in 37 games.
“He’s really what’s making them go right now. He’s a very good player,” said Villanova coach Andy Talley.
Smith is appreciative of the support provided by his parents, Warren and Karen, and for the many coaches who have helped him learn the skills and concepts necessary for him to become a successful Division I quarterback.
Smith will graduate in May with a degree in kinesiolgy and physical education/teaching and coaching. He hopes to continue playing, but looks forward to sharing his knowledge of the game as a coach.
First, he wants to help the Bears win a CAA championship.
“It’s so exciting, seeing all the hard work pay off and competing at such a high level,” Smith said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’ve been doing that got us here.”