Zach Smith was never supposed to be Baylor’s starting quarterback in 2017 or 2018. But after Seth Russell’s injury and Jarrett Stidham’s decision to transfer, Smith became the starter less than a year after graduating from high school.
In four games as a starter, Smith flashed a future that could make him the Big 12’s best quarterback in 2018. But with Anu Solomon and Charlie Brewer having strong performances in the spring, Smith still has to win the starting job.
This is the first article in a series breaking down every Baylor football player who is likely to see the field in 2017. The series begins with Zach Smith. We’ll take a look at his strengths, some of his weaknesses and then offer a prediction on how he’ll play this season.
Zach Smith can force the ball into tight windows as well as any Baylor quarterback. Baylor wide receiver RJ Sneed noted, “Everybody knows Zach swings the ball a little harder.” The freshman wide receiver was certainly not lying:
Smith’s ability to throw the ball in those windows is incredibly valuable. He’s able to create plays for receivers with little separation, and he’s also able to beat different zone looks—something he did against Kansas State in the clip above. It’s nice to have a quarterback that can make a throw when the play seems dead:
Or decide that he can hit his receiver in stride against two punishing guys in the secondary:
And on other occasions, he can lead his receiver to safety:
The Bears may not spread the field as much as they used to, but throwing from sideline to sideline still remains vital. Smith has the arm strength to quickly get the ball to the other side of the field. When you can make this throw, life is a lot easier:
Smith was excellent at finding open receivers. Smith did have two games with a completion percentage below 50%. But one of those games was against Oklahoma when Seth Russell suffered a season ending injury. The other was against a West Virginia defense that made things difficult. Despite those two games with a sub 50% completion percentage, he finished the year with a nearly 60% completion rate. Smith did that because if a receiver was open, he often made an excellent strike:
The thing that surprised me most re-watching Smith’s play from last season was his impressive pocket presence. Maybe it’s because he’s 6’4 and a giant dude, but for whatever reason, Smith didn’t seem worried about getting hit or the pocket collapsing. Instead, he often stepped up in the pocket and found his target:
Additionally, Smith throws a phenomenal deep ball. He has good touch and a cannon for an arm. If a wide receiver gets a step on the secondary, Smith can find him on a line:
A few of you might be thinking, “If I wanted to watch Texas Tech get destroyed, I’d just pick up a U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges.” But Smith showed he could make this throw against teams that have defenses. In the Cactus Bowl, Pro Football Focus noted on throws greater than 20 yards downfield, Smith went 3-of-7 for 147 yards and two touchdowns. He’s got a superb deep ball against the best defenses:
Smith’s strengths far outweigh his weaknesses, but there are two things that stick out. First, Smith sometimes fires the ball too hard for the situation. Seth Russell and Bryce Petty were both guilty of this too. Not every situation requires zipping the ball at 90 miles an hour. I thought Smith did a better job changing speeds than Russell, but there’s no linebacker over the middle that requires this ball be thrown so hard:
I’m not too concerned about that area of Smith’s game. There aren’t too many of those plays, and he just turned 19. There are enough of those throws to be worried, but he took some heat off the ball on many occasions:
The biggest problem for Smith last season was that he made some very questionable throws. Some of this is inevitable when a quarterback has that kind of arm. You live with a few crazy throws because a few of them turn into touchdowns. But this is a play Smith needed to just throw the ball away:
And there’s no way Smith can find Chris Platt for touchdown against this coverage:
But Smith didn’t make that many awful decisions. He’s barely 19-years-old. Last season, Smith took over an offense decimated by injuries. He finished with 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. That number isn’t catastrophic. Some of those interceptions were a reflection of problems with timing for a true freshman with limited reps. Others were about a quarterback not grasping all of an offense that usually doesn’t feature a starting quarterback until the 3rd year in the system. And some were just bad luck:
If Smith is the starter, he’s probably going to throw more interceptions than Anu Solomon or Charlie Brewer would. But he’s going to throw for more yards and touchdowns. When a quarterback has an arm like Zach Smith’s, he should use it. There will be a throw a game where almost nobody in the stadium thinks Smith can possibly complete it. And he will.
Smith’s quest will be scaling back the throws where he has zero shot at anything good happening. If he can do that, the interceptions that come with his amazing arm and zip are worth it. He showed enough at 18 to make me think he’ll do that at 19.
I believe Zach Smith will be Baylor’s starting quarterback. Anu Solomon is really good, and Charlie Brewer is already better than his ranking indicated. But Smith can make every throw at an elite level.
My guess is that Smith will start every game he’s healthy. I think he’ll finish the year with 3,600 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That should make him the 3rd best quarterback in the Big 12 this season—behind only Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph. And he’ll be the best quarterback in the Big 12 in 2018.