No wonder University of Toledo coach Tom Amstutz responds with something of an icy stare and declines to answer questions about Kent Smith.
The left-handed quarterback, you see, was almost a Rocket not once, but twice. And, this Saturday, Smith will be on the Central Michigan side of the line of scrimmage trying his best to derail the Rockets in their pursuit of back-to-back Mid-American Conference championships.
Smith had just completed his senior season at Start High School when Gary Pinkel left UT to become head coach at Missouri. The All-City League quarterback had narrowed his college choices to four -Toledo, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Louisiana Tech.
"I didn't know what kind of a program Toledo would have with coach Pinkel leaving," Smith said earlier this week.
A pretty good one, it turned out. Amstutz has led the Rockets to two MAC titles, three bowl appearances, and is 42-16 in his fifth season.
But Smith opted for CMU, feeling "it was a program on the upswing."
After three years in Mount Pleasant, where the Rockets and Chippewas will tangle Saturday at 1 p.m., Smith sensed he was 0-for-2 in decisions. The Rockets were still flying high and the Chips had just completed their eighth losing season in nine tries. Smith had attempted 16 passes in four games over three years, including a red-shirt season. He was so far back in coach Mike DeBord's doghouse that all he could see was tails wagging.
"Without a doubt, I was wrong about Toledo," Smith said. "If you had asked me then, I would have told you I regretted not going to Toledo. I was a little homesick. I thought long and hard about transferring there."
As fate would have it, just as Smith was contemplating reaching for the phone the doggone thing rang. DeBord was gone. Brian Kelly, fresh from back-to-back Division II national championships at Grand Valley, was the new CMU coach.
"I saw a fresh start," Smith said. "I saw a great opportunity to get back on top and see some playing time. We couldn't get any lower and I looked at [Kelly's] background and knew this program couldn't go anywhere but up."
Smith became Kelly's starting quarterback
and threw for 2,284 yards last season while accounting for 239.5 yards of total offense per game. The Chippewas went 4-7 and won three MAC games, their most since 1999. It was a start.
In 2005, CMU has fashioned a three-game winning streak and is 4-3 overall, 3-1 in the MAC.
Kelly makes it clear who has the key role.
"If Kent doesn't play well, we have no chance of winning," Kelly said. "He's from Toledo. I know he sees this game as a great challenge."
Smith said he "always put an asterisk by this game when the schedule comes out. It's sort of a personal rival."
He certainly performed that way a year ago when CMU visited the Glass Bowl. He set school single-game records for completions (29) and total offense (446) yards, but the Rockets still won 27-22 to make it 10 straight wins against the Chips.
"I think it's athletic ability that sets him apart," Kelly said of his QB. "He's 6-5 and 218 [pounds], but he can run. He gives us that ability to be unpredictable. Defenses can't be very comfortable in terms of what they want to do."
Kelly doesn't have to convince UT linebacker Anthony Jordan, who knew he'd seen something special a year ago.
"Man, he can move," Jordan said of Smith. "I had an open shot at him on a blitz and he made me miss. He can sit back there and throw well, but he has the athletic ability to get out, too. He's a hometown boy, so I think he'll be jacked up. Plus, it's a championship game."
Well, yes and no. UT is the only unbeaten team in MAC play at 4-0 and Saturday's winner takes over control of the West Division race. But there is still a lot of football to be played.
Smith agrees, though, that "this is by far our biggest game since I've been here. The future is in our hands. If we win and continue to take care of business it would be a huge turnaround for our program."
Smith has completed 60 per cent of his passes this season for 1,441 yards. He has thrown for six touchdowns against just two interceptions from CMU's spread offense.
He is a fifth-year senior and this is his last hurrah, but as Kelly points out, "Kent is still a young quarterback on the basis of game experience. He has nowhere near the maturity level of [Toledo's] Bruce Gradkowski, for example. But he's capable of making some plays, athletically, that Bruce maybe doesn't make sometimes."
No, just more of that silent stare from Amstutz.
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