Blue Zone

Around the ACC: Week 3

After a 34-20 win against Baylor, Duke moved to 3-0 in a week in which the ACC secured 6 non-conference wins and hosted two conference games.

Duke 34, Baylor 20

Running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown combined for 262 yards—including three breakaway touchdown runs—to propel the Blue Devils to victory. Baylor focused their energy on slowing Daniel Jones, who completed 20 of 35 passing attempts for 184 yards, but was held without a touchdown for the first time this season.

Despite several miscues and missed opportunities against the winless Bears, Duke's defense held them to just 57 rushing yards, bailing out an offense that turned the ball over twice. The Bears were within four points late, but a 22-yard interception returned for a touchdown by junior linebacker Ben Humphreys sealed the victory. The Blue Devils will now prepare for a road test against archrival North Carolina. 

No. 3 Clemson 47, No. 14 Louisville 21

In a conference clash of Top-15 teams, the Tigers steamrolled Louisville in their first road test of the season, at one point leading 33-7. Filling the void left by Deshaun Watson's departure, quarterback Kelly Bryant accounted for 342 yards to power Clemson's offense, As the Tigers climbed  to the No. 2 spot in the AP poll, they kept reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in check—he accounted for 317 passing yards and three touchdowns, but threw an interception and posted a QBR of 24.1. 

No. 9 Oklahoma State 59, Pittsburgh 21

At Heinz Field, the Panthers have yet to establish a winning tradition like their NFL counterparts. Burnt by Mason Rudolph’s five touchdown passes and 497 yards through the air, the Panthers have few positive takeaways from this game. One semi-bright spot was sophomore Ben Dinucci, who fared decently as a replacement after taking over halfway through the game, throwing for 228 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. At one point, Pitt even offered free beverages to anyone who stayed for the entire game. They will look to reset as they face Georgia Tech on Saturday.

No. 16 Virginia Tech 64, East Carolina 17

East Carolina started off strong, putting up 17 points in just the first 12:26 of the game. After the quick start, the Pirates ran out of wind and Virginia Tech came roaring back, racking 34 points in the third quarter and 675 total yards for the game. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson threw five touchdowns, including three of them to wideout Cam Phillips to lead the Hokies to a 3-0 start. With his dominant game, Phillips set school records for both his 14 catches and his 189 yards receiving.

Virginia 38, Connecticut 18

On Saturday, Virginia amassed 626 yards of offense, 455 of which from signal-caller Kurt Benkert, who broke the school passing yard record. Jumping out to a 24-0 halftime lead, the Cavaliers were never threatened by the Huskies, who turned the ball over twice in the red zone, despite a 60-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bryant Shirreff to receiver Hergy Mayala.

Wake Forest 46, Utah State 10

Wake Forest got off to a fast start and never looked back, jumping out to an early 29-0 lead, holding Utah State scoreless through the first three quarters. Utah State had a weak effort on the ground, gaining 42 yards on 31 attempts, while the Demon Deacons racked up 292 yards. The competition will be getting stiffer for Wake Forest soon—it takes on No. 12 Florida State Sept. 30. 

Syracuse 41, Central Michigan 17

After being upset by Middle Tennessee State last week, the Orange bounced back to run past Central Michigan. Despite being locked in a 10-10 knot in the first quarter, Syracuse was able to hold the previously undefeated Chippewas to just 382 yards on offense. The Orange also caused two turnovers, returning one interception for a touchdown to help put them over the top.

Notre Dame 49, Boston College 20

At 3-0, the unranked Fighting Irish have a case to get back in the rankings. Quarterback Brandon Wimbash had a more impressive game on the ground than through the air, totaling 207 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Josh Adams added his own 229 yards on the ground, as Notre Dame physically dominated the Eagles. 

North Carolina 53, Old Dominion 23

In a much more favorable matchup than their previous game against Louisville, North Carolina ran past Old Dominion on the back of Jordan Brown’s 125 rushing yards. Quarterback Chazz Surratt showed significant improvement, completing 16 of 24 passes for 257 yards.

Prior to halftime, Old Dominion had given up 39, and their only points came on a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Following their offensive struggles in the first half, freshman quarterback Steven Williams Jr. took over in the second half and was able to deliver 16 points. 

NC State 49, Furman 16

NC State came out with a balanced attack this weekend, wgaining 248 yards through the air and 242 yards on the ground. Conversely, Furman rushed for just 47 yards and was physically overmatched by the Wolfpack. 

Postponed: No. 17 Miami, No. 11 Florida State

Hurricane Irma is still having its impact on Florida, as this Top 25, cross-divisional conference game is postponed until a date to be determined.

Cancelled: Georgia Tech, UCF

Irma forced the Knights to cancel their game with the Yellow Jackets, leaving just 10 games on their schedule. 

Chronicle postgame: Duke football vs. Baylor

After routing Northwestern, Duke had to overcome miscues and missed opportunities to beat Baylor 34-20 and move to 3-0. Shaun Wilson had touchdown runs of 50 and 65 yards to lead the Blue Devil offense. The Chronicle's Ben Feder and Sameer Pandhare break down Duke's third win of the season heading into a road matchup with North Carolina next week. 

Read the full game story here

Making the grade: Duke football vs. Baylor

Behind two rushing touchdowns by senior running back Shaun Wilson and four forced turnovers, Duke remained undefeated with a 34-20 win against Baylor 34-20. Although the Blue Devils won, they had an up-and-down day against a downtrodden, winless Bears team, squandering several red zone opportunities.

Offense: B

Pass: Following a dominant performance last week against Northwestern, Daniel Jones took a step back against the Bears, throwing for just 184 yards through the air with an interception and no touchdowns. Not only did it mark his fewest yards in a game this season, but he also posted his worst completion percentage of the year, completing 57.1% of his passes. The redshirt sophomore's interception came on a red zone pass to the back corner of the end zone at the end of the first half. The Blue Devil receivers also struggled to help Jones, dropping multiple passes.

Rush: To make up for the stagnant passing game, the Blue Devils recorded 246 yards on the ground in only 51 total attempts, including an 18-carry, 176-yard and two touchdown effort from Wilson. After he fumbled on his first carry Saturday, Wilson surged back with 50 and 65-yard touchdown runs to anchor the Duke's offense. But Wilson didn't do it on his own—redshirt freshman Brittain Brown rushed for 86 yards and a 34-yard touchdown in which he broke three tackles en route to the end zone. As a team, the Blue Devils averaged 4.8 yards per carry, up from 3.9 per attempt last week against Northwestern. 

X’s and O’s: The Blue Devils racked up 430 yards of total offense against the Bears, but also turned the ball over twice, with Daniel Jones’ interception and Shaun Wilson’s opening drive fumble. Despite their early success, Duke hasn't had a truly balanced game on offense against its two FBS opponents thus far. 

Defense: A-

Pass: The Blue Devil defense did well to slow the Bears offense, intercepting sophomore quarterback Zach Smith three times and limiting him to a QBR of 8.4, but also allowed 263 yards and three touchdowns. Duke still struggled with stopping big plays—Smith completed both a 73-yard and a 79-yard touchdown to receiver Chris Platt. 

Rush: Another game, and another dominant defensive performance against the run by Duke. The Blue Devils limited Baylor to 57 yards on 27 carries for an average of just 2.1 yards per carry. Following a 17-yard carry by Dru Dixon on Baylor’s first carry of the day, the rushing game became completely stagnant. With the passing game largely snuffed, the Bears attempted to turn to the run, but the Blue Devils front seven kept them quiet, with sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay combining for five tackles for loss.

X’s and O’s: Through three games, the Blue Devils defense has only allowed 143 rushing yards, and has kept opposing rushers to an average of 1.81 yards per carry. Duke has also forced eight turnovers during that span and has not allowed more than 20 points in a single game.

Special Teams: B

Duke’s special teams had its highs and lows against Baylor. Austin Parker converted two of his three field goal attempts and all four extra point tries, but missed a 33-yard chip shot late in the second quarter. Although he wasn't perfect on kicking, he had a bounce-back game punting, averaging 40.3 yards per punt. Duke also attempted a surprise punt attempt with Daniel Jones that traveled 45 yards before it entered the endzone for a touchback. 

Baylor did not return any punts, and returned one kickoff for only 13 yards, marking a strong performance for the Duke special teams group. Although Wilson fielded three punts for -12 yards, he did advance the ball 63 yards on three kick returns, his longest going 27 yards.

Extra point: Duke football vs. Baylor

 Finding itself in a seven-point hole just 32 seconds into Saturday afternoon’s contest against Baylor at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke bounced back to power its way to a 34-20 victory against the Bears. Senior running back Shaun Wilson led the way for the Blue Devil offense with 176 rushing yards and two long touchdown runs to help Duke overcome many missed opportunities and miscues. 

Revisiting the three keys to the game:

Pounce on Zach Smith: Duke’s defense punished Baylor’s newly minted sophomore starting quarterback for three interceptions—including junior linebacker Ben Humphreys’ 22-yard pick-six—to go along with three sacks and several hard hits. Smith faced constant pressure and completed just 12 of 34 passing attempts. He also fumbled twice, though one was recovered by his teammate Deonte Williams.

Attack the Bears’ secondary: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones put up his lowest yardage total of the season but did enough to manage the Blue Devils’ offense. Rather than attack Baylor’s defense through the air, Duke relied on its strong running back tandem of Wilson and Brittain Brown, who combined for 262 rushing yards and three explosive touchdowns.

Don’t sleep on Baylor: Despite being double-digit favorites to hand the Bears their third straight loss, the Blue Devils did not get ahead of themselves, despite some early hiccups. When sophomore wide receiver Denzel Mims gave Baylor the lead within the first minute of the game, Duke could tell it was in for a battle. Head coach David Cutcliffe’s team fought tooth and nail for three quarters before finally pulling away in the game’s final period en route to a 14-point victory.

Three key plays:

13:36 remaining, first quarter: Just 52 seconds after Smith’s touchdown pass gave Baylor an early 7-0 lead, Wilson rumbled down the field for a 50-yard touchdown to even the score and erase his own mistake, a fumble on his first carry which set up the Bears in Duke territory. Wilson’s score eliminated any momentum a scuffling Baylor squad may have been building from their takeaway.

14:21 remaining, second quarter: Though Wilson may have been the star of the game for the Blue Devils,  Brown, a redshirt freshman, made his presence felt with a rushing touchdown of his own. He broke several tackles on a 34-yard run before bursting into the endzone to give Duke a lead which it never relinquished.

11:31 remaining, fourth quarter: After Baylor cut Duke’s lead to just four points on a 79-yard touchdown reception by Chris Platt at the end of the third quarter, the Bears were able to force a punt and seemed to be regaining the momentum. Humphreys rewrote the script with a 22-yard pick-six of Smith that gave the Blue Devils a commanding double-digit lead. 

Three key stats:

Duke’s defense forces four turnovers: The Blue Devils picked off Smith three times and recovered a fumble following a strip sack. Duke scored ten points off of turnovers and successfully prevented the Bears from establishing any offensive rhythm. 

Joe Giles-Harris registers 12 total tackles: Sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris anchored the Duke defense with 12 total tackles, bringing his season total to 26. He was also one of three Blue Devils to record an interception.

David Cutcliffe earns his 99th career win: Duke head coach David Cutcliffe earned his 99th career win on his birthday Saturday. Cutcliffe, who has coached the Blue Devils since 2008, has been given credit for turning the Blue Devil football program around and has high hopes for what the team achieve in the near future. Cutcliffe will look to add a 100th career win to his résumé next Saturday as Duke takes on its archrival, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

And the Duke game ball goes to…Shaun Wilson

The senior running back fumbled on the Blue Devils second play from scrimmage, but that mistake did not stop him from amassing 209 total yards and two eye-opening touchdowns. Wilson immediately made amends for his fumble with a 50-yard scoring run on the next drive. The score was his fifth touchdown run of 50 yards or more in his career—a program high water mark. But that wasn’t the last huge play Wilson broke off. Three minutes into the second half, Wilson broke free again for a 65-yard rushing touchdown that had Wallace Wade Stadium shaking. 

And the Baylor game ball goes to…Chris Platt

Junior wide receiver Chris Platt carried the load for the Bears’ offense with 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 79-yard strike to help Baylor pull within four at the end of the third quarter. Platt averaged 37.0 yards per reception and his huge plays kept Baylor in the game for the first 45 minutes of action.

HALFTIME: Duke 14, Baylor 7

Right from the first offensive play, Duke starting quarterback Daniel Jones had top wide receiver T.J. Rahming streaking down the field and lofted the ball perfectly into Rahming’s hands. But Rahming dropped the ball, the first of many missed opportunities for the Blue Devils. 

The next play, Duke fumbled the ball.

Despite that, the Blue Devils lead Baylor 14-7 at halftime at Wallace Wade Stadium. Although Baylor scored first two plays after the turnover on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Zach Smith to wideout Denzel Mims, Duke responded with two long touchdown runs, a 50-yarder by Shaun Wilson and one for 34 yards from redshirt freshman Brittain Brown.

The Blue Devils have made a litany of mistakes on offense, as they have looked nothing like the team that put up 41 points and 538 yards against Northwestern last week. Jones has been under pressure for the majority of his dropbacks, with the Bears nearly matching their season total for sacks with three in the first half, and Duke wide receiver Chris Taylor caught the ball out of bounds on what could have been a long touchdown reception. 

The Blue Devils had the ball in the red zone twice late in the second quarter but failed to come away with any points, missing a short field goal before Jones threw an interception in the end zone and their next possession in the final minute.

Luckily for Duke, Baylor has not been able to capitalize on its sloppiness, with the Bears amassing 10 penalties, often extending the Blue Devils' offensive drives. If Duke can put it all together in the second half, this matchup may get out of hand.

Here are some observations from the first half:

  • The Blue Devils have put an emphasis on establishing a run game. It has run the ball 25 times to only 20 passes, with moderate success outside the two big runs.
  • Baylor continues to try to get its speedy wide receivers on the outside, with 11 of Smith’s 19 passes targeted for Mims and Platt. 
  • Smith has largely struggled in the first half, completing just six of his 19 pass attempts for 84 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
  • Wilson’s touchdown run—his fifth career one for at least yards—sets a new program record for career 50-plus yard touchdown runs.
  • Kicker Austin Parker missed a 31-yard field goal, continuing Duke’s struggles at kicker since Ross Martin departed two seasons ago.

Chronicle pregame: Duke football vs. Baylor

Before Duke takes on Baylor Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, The Chronicle's Ben Feder, Hank Tucker and Sameer Pandhare discuss Baylor's new starting quarterback and why Duke should be careful with the Bears. 

0:30—Explaining Baylor's disastrous start to the season

1:30—Can Duke's running backs rebound after a quiet game against Northwestern?

2:20—Explaining the Blue Devils' success on the offensive line this season

3:35—One reason why Duke fans should be worried about an upset

5:00—How does the Blue Devil secondary match up with Baylor's electric receivers?

Third and goal: Duke football vs. Baylor

Duke and quarterback Daniel Jones will look to build on a strong 2-0 start to the season as they host Baylor Saturday afternoon. Baylor is hungry for a win after back-to-back shocking losses to Liberty and University of Texas at San Antonio. Here are the three keys to the game:

Pounce on Zach Smith

Saturday afternoon marks an opportunity for a surging Duke defensive to wreak havoc on a vulnerable Bears team searching for answers. The Bears will pair a new starting quarterback with a porous offensive line in what should be a favorable matchup for Victor Dimukeje and the Duke defensive line. With dual-threat quarterback Anu Solomon out, the Bears will call on sophomore quarterback Zach Smith to try to change the course of what has been a catastrophe of a season for first year head coach Matt Rhule thus far. It will be crucial for Duke to test Smith, who could fit better in Rhule’s pro-style system, by taking advantage of the battle up front. The Blue Devils dropped Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson four times last week, and will look to disrupt Smith against an offensive line that surrendered four sacks to UTSA. 

Attack the Bears' secondary

Redshirt sophomore Daniel Jones has already accounted for seven touchdowns this year, four of which came last week against Northwestern. Jones was effective both on the ground and through the air, rushing for over 100 yards and throwing for 305 yards. The redshirt sophomore quarterback, who is known for his impeccable decision-making, is looking to exploit a Baylor secondary that has not picked off a pass this season—Jones will likely look to No. 1 receiver TJ Rahming early and often. Duke’s secondary has been exploited in recent years by teams with explosive receivers like the Bears’ Chris Platt, so Jones might need to put up another big day for the Blue Devils to win comfortably. 

Don’t sleep on Baylor

For a Baylor program that has gone to seven straight bowl games, including a Cotton Bowl just three years ago, the last two weeks have been a nightmare. Baylor gifted both UTSA and Liberty their first ever Power Five football wins, quickly leaving Rhule in a deep hole. That being said, it is imperative that the Blue Devils do not take the Bears lightly in what has the potential to be a trap game. Head coach David Cutcliffe and Duke must recognize that Smith is the same quarterback who led the Bears to a 31-12 Cactus Bowl victory against Boise State just nine months ago, capping off a 2016 season in which Baylor finished ninth in the nation in total yards. The Blue Devils must stay level-headed and composed as they take on an unusual role of being favored in a game versus a Big-12 opponent.

X Factor: Duke football vs. Baylor

With the Baylor Bears coming off of two tough losses, the Blue Devils look to hit them while they’re down and secure a 3-0 season start. 

Every week throughout the football season, the Blue Zone will break down a player on each team who could be the difference-maker in the upcoming contest. 

Duke: Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris  

After last weekend’s 41-17 rout of Northwestern, the Blue Devils’ offense looks sharp and ready to attack. Daniel Jones has successfully taken the reigns, amassing over 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in Duke’s last match-up. Now facing a Baylor offense that is looking to establish offensive consistency, the Blue Devil defense will have to continue to perform—especially when it comes to pass rushing and putting pressure on the young Bear quarterback Zach Smith.  

A pre-season All-ACC selection, Giles-Harris has not failed to impress in his first two starts of the season, tacking on eight tackles in the match-up against North Carolina Central and another six versus the Wildcats. Giles-Harris accumulated more than 100 tackles last season in addition to having a career-high 16 stops versus the Eagles. His ability to pressure the quarterback, cut short passing plays and close holes in the line for the running game will be a major key for Duke to limit Baylor's athletic playmakers. 

Baylor: Quarterback Zach Smith 

Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon’s abysmal passing performance in his first two starts for the Bears paved the way for sophomore quarterback Zach Smith's move to the starting line-up. Known for his accuracy and poise, his position as the head of the offense might help stimulate offensive consistency for Baylor and allow them to put together cleaner drives. 

The Bears have two dangerous receivers, Chris Platt and Denzel Mims, and if Smith can prove more accurate than Solomon, their offense could be far more potent. With six of its seven touchdowns on the season coming in less than two minutes, Baylor has shown flashes of explosiveness. Smith’s poise and leadership skills could provide much needed direction for a team playing with a high percentage of true freshman, and could be a better fit than Solomon was in first-year head coach Matt Rhule's pro-style offense, as the Blue Zone broke down in the film room. 

Duke in the NFL: Week 1

 As the NFL season gets underway, The Blue Zone takes a look at how the former Blue Devils in the NFL performed in Week 1. 

Jamison Crowder, WR, Washington Redskins

The 105th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft came into this season with lofty expectations. Crowder improved upon his stellar rookie season, as he made significant strides in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, finishing with 67, 847 and seven, respectively. With the departure of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, Washington’s two leading receivers last season, the Monroe, N.C., native seemed poised to have a breakout season.

The Duke product’s road to stardom got off to a bumpy start in the first week of the NFL season. Crowder compiled a meager three receptions for 14 yards and lost a fumble on a punt return during the Philadelphia Eagles’ 30-17 dismantling of the Redskins. Much of his subpar performance can be attributed to a lingering hip issue, though, and Crowder seems primed to bounce back in his Week 2 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams.

Vincent Rey, LB, Cincinnati Bengals

Rey, an eight-year veteran, came into the 2017 season as the Bengals’ longest-tenured player. The outside linebacker’s experience contributes to his leadership skills, and he once again will lead a formidable Cincinnati defense. 

In the Bengals’ otherwise embarrassing 20-0 throttling at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, Rey shined as one of the team’s few bright spots. The 2010 undrafted free agent led the Bengals with 11 tackles, and also tacked on a tackle for loss. 

Laken Tomlinson, LG, San Francisco 49ers

In 2015, Tomlinson became the first Blue Devil to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1987, when the Detroit Lions selected him with the 28th pick in the 2015 draft. The former All-American failed to live up to expectations in Detroit however, and the Lions traded Tomlinson to the 49ers this August for a future fifth-round pick.

The 49ers reserve guard, who logged playing time in every game the prior two seasons, did not play a single snap in Week 1. However, there have been rumblings in San Francisco that Tomlinson could supplant incumbent starter Zane Beadles in due time.

Ross Cockrell, CB, New York Giants

The fourth-year Duke product is coming off of a strong season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, following a breakout year in 2015. Despite this strong showing, for which he was graded as the 27th-best cornerback in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, Cockrell became expendable with the Steelers’ acquisition of former Browns cornerback Joe Haden. The organization thus traded him to the New York Giants on September 2, where the Farmington Hills, Mich., native is likely to get significant playing time once he familiarizes himself with the playbook.

Jeremy Cash, LB, Carolina Panthers

Cash amassed an impressive resume at Duke, including winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. This success has not translated to the NFL yet for the former Blue Devil, though. Cash signed last year as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers and has seen little playing time.

The Panthers linebacker has only seen action thus far on special teams, and he serves as a reserve linebacker for Carolina. Cash’s highest profile incident came in training camp, when head coach Ron Rivera berated him for making a low hit on star rookie running back Christian McCaffrey during practice.

Thomas Hennessy, LS, New York Jets

Long snapper has long been one of the most underappreciated positions in football. Hennessy has not let this fact stop him from making a name for himself. The New Jersey native, who initially inked a contract with the Indianapolis Colts, was dealt to the Jets this preseason. At training camp in Florham Park, N.J., Hennessy outplayed veteran starter Tanner Purdum and won the starting position. The undrafted free agent will be a major contributor on the Jets’ special teams unit in 2017 and beyond.

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.