Smoker, Spartans fight back to the top

Brett Angel

Even when his future appeared as though it couldn’t get any bleaker, Jeff Smoker maintained a quiet confidence in himself.

Surrounded by a Michigan State football program caught up in negative distractions and plagued by substance abuse problems that threatened his own career, the Spartans’ quarterback took comfort in a single, simple thought.

He knew he’d be back.

“I knew that when it came down to it, it was in my hands,” Smoker said. “If I did the right thing on the field and off – if I took care of what I needed to on a daily basis and kept working towards the goals I set for myself – I was the only one that could stop myself from getting there.”

Smoker was suspended for the final five games of the 2002 season after admitting to his own substance abuse problems. But armed with a new outlook on life, a year’s worth of hard work and a second chance, Smoker is back with the Spartans.

And he’s making the most of it.

After entering spring practice without an opportunity to compete for the starting quarterback position, Smoker soon won back the job he had held for the better part of his three seasons in East Lansing, Mich.

By the time fall practice ended in August, Smoker was once again the No. 1 quarterback on Michigan State’s depth chart.

“It’s not been an easy road for him,” first-year Michigan State coach John Smith said. “He’s had a lot of demands placed on him by us. He’s had to earn his way back to this football team and earn the respect of his teammates.”

Smith and Smoker have led the Spartans (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) to the top of the conference, heading into their game against Minnesota (6-1, 2-1) on Saturday at the Metrodome. A win against the Gophers would mean the best eight-game start for Michigan State since 1966.

Through the first seven games in his final collegiate season, Smoker ranks second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (259.7), touchdowns (12) and pass efficiency (146.4).

Coupled with a more pass-happy offense that Smith brought with him from Louisville, Smoker is having perhaps the best of his four seasons at Michigan State.

“They’re slingin’ it this year,” Minnesota safety Justin Isom said. “I mean, they’re throwing the ball all over the place. We’re just going to buckle it up Saturday. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Containing Smoker in the Metrodome on Saturday is certainly a daunting task for the Gophers’ defense. But it’s nothing compared to the challenges Smoker faced in the last 12 months.

After overcoming his personal issues with substance abuse, Smoker’s future with the team remained cloudy at best.

With Michigan State struggling to a 4-8 record last year, the Spartans were in dire need of a change. Coach Bobby Williams was fired with three games left in the season, and Smoker’s off-the-field problems seemed like one more distraction the Spartans didn’t need in their rebuilding phase.

But Smith saw in Smoker what the senior quarterback came to see in himself – an immensely talented young man with the life experience to give him a new perspective on football.

“I couldn’t ask for a better situation to be in right now,” Smoker said. “Sometimes as a player you take things for granted.

“Then you get a little taste of what it feels like when football isn’t there for you. I just try to take advantage of every opportunity I get now.”

Smoker’s situation isn’t too inspirational that opposing Big Ten coaches find themselves pulling for him from the opposing sideline – they have enough trouble slowing him down.

But the manner in which he has handled his personal struggles is something even his adversaries show respect for.

“One of the great things that athletics teaches us is how to come back from tough times and adversity,” Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo said. “Hopefully, he’ll continue to play well and this will be one of the great stories in college athletics this year.”

As far as Smoker and his teammates are concerned, their season has already been one of the better stories in college athletics.

They can only hope the season’s final chapters will be as memorable.