If there's a quarterback potentially lost in the shuffle of how the future looks back at 2015, it's Jeff Smith. An off-the-radar backup to start the preseason, he became one of the QB2 backups by the time the regular schedule began due to his performance in training camp. He played sparingly against Howard to start the year but was thrust, along with Troy Flutie, into the spotlight after Darius Wade's injury against Florida State.
Playing alongside Flutie through the three games after FSU, Smith was named the starting quarterback for Clemson, and he played in the QB1 role into the Louisville game. It was there that he sustained a concussion while running in an eight-yard touchdown sprint, and although he was active for Virginia Tech, he didn't play, also sitting out NC State in the home finale last week.
The season will end with substantial talk about Darius Wade (returning starter), Troy Flutie (because Flutie), and John Fadule (pleasantly surprising at the end of the year), but it's Smith who provides some of the best feedback about in-game performance. He was a solid runner, and he spent more than half the season as the team's leading rusher. Despite not playing against Maine, Virginia Tech, or NC State, he's still the team's fourth leading runner, and he's tied for the team lead with five touchdowns.
In order to get a good handle on Smith as a quarterback, let's go back to the scouting report published during his high school commitment. In that report on ESPN, he's called "a bit underweight" for an ideal quarterback with "just average" height. Despite that, he has "special" speed and, with his burst, "can run away from defenders."
Smith brought decent arm capability and patience with the football. His decision-making process is good when he has the time to read and think for the play. While that could be true of any QB - that they can execute when they have enough time - think what happened when he snapped the ball and almost immediately ran for his life. Whether you're throwing the ball away or left to scramble for a huge loss or, most notably against Louisville, fumble, he couldn't quite make snap decisions. That's something Brian St. Pierre, a former Eagle and NFL signal caller, referred to as the hardest jump a QB can make from high school to college, and it's where Smith looked the most like a true freshman.
Smith's scouting report described him as a very functional dual threat QB who could make a mid to upper level power conference school very happy "with more polish." He needed to improve as a passer, but in the event that he didn't, he projected very easily to a wide receiver or defensive back because he has off-the-charts athleticism.
Looking at Smith's numbers and that's almost the exact story told. He was arguably the team's most consistent and best rushing thread, and he displayed flashes of electric speed. Entrusted as a quarterback needing to complete passes, however, a true freshman who is beyond raw as a thrower really struggled.
There's a couple of arguments his statistics dispel. First of all, he's thrown just as many plays on first down as he does on second down, but his execution was substantially worse. He went 3-15 for 52 yards on first down to 7-15 on second down for 67 yards. His passing attempts on third down nearly doubled while his completions were about the same, going 9-31 for 63 yards. So it dispels the rumor that he wasn't given a chance to throw on first down.
Smith was the starting quarterback against both Clemson and Louisville, games where the Eagles did run more than they passed. But the discrepancy wasn't as large as people make it out to be; against Clemson, BC ran only 15 more rushing plays than passing plays, compared with only eight more rushes than passes against Louisville.
Looking at down and distance, Smith threw more first down passes than he did on second down from the same distance, having gone 3-14 on 1st and 8-10 and 4-9 on 2nd and 8-10. The only time Smith ever really had the ball taken out of his hands was on 3rd and short, where he attempted only two passes. On intermediate or long third down situations, he went 9-29.
The point is that Smith was given opportunities to throw the ball but just couldn't execute with regularity or consistency. He went 9-25 when throwing between his own 20 and his own 39 yard line, and he went 8-29 when passing between the 40s. So while it's true that Smith didn't throw the ball in plus territory - he went 3-9 passing inside the opponent's 40 yard line - remember what the scouting report read about him: he wasn't ready to be a really impactful passer without "polish."
This is a guy who, like Troy Flutie, needed to be developed over time. With Smith, if it didn't work out, he could have converted to a wide receiver or defensive back. He began the season as BC's third quarterback, a true freshman who probably didn't think he would ever sniff the field. By the end of training camp, he was QB2, and by the halfway point, he was the starter. People who want to point at the play calling do have a point to a degree, but with Smith being handed the reigns to the offense, he simply wasn't there as a passer and, out of necessity, accelerated far too quickly to playing time. Combined with a struggling offensive line, there was no way he could be expected to be Tyler Murphy 2.0, a speedy runner who (unlike Murphy) could be a true dual-threat passer.
The good news for Smith's future is that he is incredibly dynamic and can be coached into any one of several training tracks. The backfield is going to become extremely crowded with Darius Wade, Troy Flutie, and John Fadule returning and incoming players in Anthony Brown (recruited as a QB) and De'Vante Cross (recruited as an ATH), so it's conceivably to be an uphill battle in a crowded backfield with anywhere upwards of five teammates.
But a guy like him will always have a place on a roster because of his already-developed skillset. If he can't develop as a passer (and there's still time to make that work), he has the athleticism to transition to another position (such as wide receiver, running back, or defensive back) wherever BC is needed. He could step into that role rather seamlessly because he has good vision on a play and comes with the smarts. There is no pressure on him other than to do his work from here on out. But in the grand scheme of the offense, he, like Troy Flutie before and alongside him, was underdeveloped for the role he was forced into playing and struggled in key moments as a result.