Film room: Duke football vs. Baylor

Every week, the Blue Zone takes you inside the video room and breaks down a key piece, player or unit for the Blue Devils’ opponent. Newly-minted starting quarterback Zach Smith is under the microscope in this week’s edition of film room: 

Baylor’s season thus far can only be compared to one thing: a dumpster fire. 

With new head coach Matt Rhule in place after Art Briles was fired, the Bears have lost to an FCS team, Liberty, and allowed Texas-San Antonio to earn its first-ever Power-5 win. 

Nearly everything has gone wrong for Baylor this year, but one glaring weakness has been at quarterback. Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon was miserable in his two starts before Rhule quickly handed over the reins to true sophomore Zach Smith, who will start against Duke Saturday. 

Solomon was inaccurate and mistake-prone, completing just 43.6 percent of his passes, including hitting on just 10 of his 26 attempts against USTA, a game in which he was sacked four times. A threat to scramble and former star at Arizona that passed for nearly 6,500 yards in his first two seasons, the dual-threat Solomon was a shell of his former self—he couldn’t hit open receivers. 

“To my reads, to my throws downfield. I wasn’t connecting,” Solomon said after falling to UTSA. “Receivers were ready to play today. I just wasn’t connecting with them.”

The Solomon-led Bears scored just 10 points against UTSA—it was clear that it was time for a change. 

But there’s reason to believe Smith could turn Baylor into a different-looking team. 

When Rhule came to Baylor, he brought a pro-style offense with him, in stark contrast with Briles’ up-tempo, Air Raid offense. Once the No. 10 pocket passing recruit in the nation according to ESPN, Smith fits the bill for Rhule—he might have began the season as the starter if it weren’t for an August ankle injury. 

Smith started the last four games of the season for the Bears after starter Seth Russell went down with an injury and steadily improved. The 6-foot-3 signal-caller brings to the table exactly what Solomon struggled with—accuracy, touch, and poise. 

He flashed those qualities in a Cactus Bowl win against Boise State to close the 2016 season, completing 28 of 39 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. And he made a lot of pro-style, if not pro-caliber throws along the way. 

Driving down the field late in the third quarter, Smith lined up in the shotgun on 1st-and-10 and quickly found a defender in his face. 

Some true freshmen might have buckled under the pressure, but Smith stepped up, sidestepping the defender to avoid taking the sack

And once more, he had the vision and presence of mind to keep his eyes downfield and hit his receiver in stride. 

He has also demonstrated precise touch on deep passes—including one that carried nearly 50 yards in the air early in the first quarter of the Cactus Bowl. 

With a defender right on receiver KD Cannon’s tail, Smith had a small window to hit him in the hands and put it right through it. The freshman showed strong footwork in the pocket, helping him make on-target long throws look routine. 

However, at times, his arm strength and willingness to take risks have proven to be detrimental. He has proven to be almost too confident in his ability to thread the needle, like in this play against Kansas State in November. 

Faced with pressure, he found a way to break loose and look downfield, finding a small window to hit his receiver in the end zone, surrounded by triple coverage. But he tried to force the throw and was intercepted. 


Although he might make some mistakes, his confidence and fit within Rhule’s pro-style system ultimately could make him a much better fit for the Bears at quarterback. In Briles’ system, Smith was forced to make a wide variety of throws, and he should be able to mesh even better under his new head coach. Baylor is still a two-touchdown underdog to the Blue Devils, but Smith could make it a more competitive game, especially against a defense that was one of the worst in the nation in preventing explosive passing plays last season.  

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