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Smoker gains maturity, unexpected playing experience in freshman season

November 9, 2000
Freshman quarterback Jeff Smoker looks to throw a pass during Saturday —

Sue Smoker insists it’s her humble son, not a cocky Big Ten quarterback, who telephones home periodically just like any other college freshman.

But, as the mother of a talented football player, Smoker realizes her son Jeff isn’t living the normal college experience.

“Jeff will say, ‘Mom, it’s not normal to have to turn your phone off, or to have 70 e-mail messages every day,’” Sue Smoker said from the family’s Manheim, Pa. home.

This is the reality for a 19-year-old who has quickly become one of the most recognizable faces on MSU’s campus.

Smoker has played in seven of nine games, finishing each of MSU’s four wins this season. Several times when the 6-foot-4, 197-pound freshman trotted onto the field for the first time during a game, the 70,000-plus crowd at Spartan Stadium erupted in applause.

Throughout all of his ups and downs, Smoker has remained modest. “I think I’ve improved a little bit each game,” Smoker said after MSU’s 27-13 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 4, in which Smoker completed 10 of 18 passes for 77 yards and an interception. “But I don’t think I improved today.”

Last spring, after the highly touted Smoker committed to MSU, he figured he’d take a year to learn the offensive system and adapt to college life while watching the games from the sidelines.

Smoker often stated he would’ve been content redshirting.

But all that changed when the Spartans lost three quarterbacks - Dan Larlham, Arron Agler and Bradlee Van Pelt - in the off-season.

Junior starter Ryan Van Dyke injured his thumb in the first game of the year against Marshall on Sept. 9. As the second stringer, Smoker’s time had already arrived.

“It was definitely something I didn’t expect,” Smoker said of his early entrance into the spotlight.

He was thrust into the game in the second quarter against Marshall, and Sue Smoker said it’s a feeling she’ll never forget.

“That was a strange feeling when Jeff went onto the field for the first time,” Sue Smoker said. “I was probably more nervous than he was.”

MSU offensive coordinator Morris Watts said he knew from the beginning Smoker was a special talent. “From the day he stepped in here, Jeff has handled everything so well,” Watts said. “The young man has self-confidence beyond his years.”

Smoker moved to East Lansing in June to get acclimated to campus and to begin learning the playbook. He lived with Van Dyke, and the two became friends.

Van Dyke was slated as the starter this season by the MSU coaching staff, but because of injuries and poor performance, Smoker has taken that title from him.

“I think Jeff has really grown up in the few months he’s been away from home,” Sue Smoker said. “His good fortune came with Ryan’s bad fortune, and they’re good friends. So a side of him is also sad.”

The freshman from Manheim, Pa., agrees with his mother about his recent maturation.

“I have matured a lot, and I’m glad I got the chance to play this year,” he said.

In seven games, Smoker has completed 78 of 149 passes, with four touchdowns and six interceptions.

MSU head coach Bobby Williams said Smoker doesn’t play like a freshman.

“A lot of credit should go to his high school coach,” Williams said. “He plays like an experienced veteran.”

Sue Smoker said she and her husband Jay are concerned about the pressures Jeff has been under.

“We worry, because this is not a normal way to grow up,” Sue Smoker said. “The more media attention somebody gets, the more negative attention there is.”

While all fans see what Smoker does on the field, his mother is more proud of something else. “The way he’s handled everything makes us feel better than what he does on the field. He’s not caught up in himself.”

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