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Despite being among the national leaders in catches-per-game this year, Utah's all-WAC tight end Dennis Smith may be only the fourth-most recognizable person in his family.

You know their faces, if not their names. His father, Donald, was a trumpet player with the fabled Les Brown band. He appeared on Bob Hope specials and with Johnny Carson's band on The Tonight Show. A sister, Elizabeth, is an actress in Los Angeles, working in commercials and dinner theaters. You can see her on prime-time TV, staring longingly at a Dodge while a space shuttle lands nearby.Then there is his brother, Brian, also an actor, who just finished playing the part of a quarterback in an upcoming beer commercial. He appeared in a television movie about - what else? - football, called "Glory Days," with Robert Conrad. And in a TV pilot of "Bonanza: The Next Generation," Brian is Hoss Cartwright's son, Josh.

Then there is Dennis, who is currently starring in his own weekly series: The Life and Times of Utah football. It is struggling in the ratings and heavy on melodrama, but not altogether uninteresting. Will the Utes shake out of the doldrums to salvage what has been a disastrous (1-4) season? Will Smith and quarterback Scott Mitchell make passing history? Will the Utes be able to beat BYU again? Will the offensive line be able to save Mitchell from being maimed?

Tune in next week.

Curiously, Smith never demonstrated much familial interest in being in the public eye. Brian offered to help procure Dennis a job on HBO's "First and Ten" series when he gets out of school, but Smith only shrugged. "I never got into that stuff," he says.

Smith has never been a publicity seeker. Informed that a reporter wanted to interview him last week, Smith reacted by saying, "Me? Why would he want to talk to me?" After a game last year, a reporter introduced himself by saying, "Are you Dennis Smith? I didn't know which one you were."

"That's OK," said Smith. "I'm not a real visible kind of dude."

But since the middle of last year, he has suddenly found what visible is all about. He is 15th nationally in receiving with an average of 6.2 catches a game. He has been named WAC Player of the Week for catching 11 passes for 145 yards and four touchdowns against Utah State. He is third in the WAC in receptions per game, having made in 31 catches in five outings.

Last season he was picked all-WAC by the league's coaches, going over the 100-yard mark in two games. In the 1988 game against Utah State it was Smith's run past several Aggies into the end zone that put the game away.

Since he is the Utes' only experienced returning receiver, Smith has been a steadying influence on what has been an occasionally erratic passing game. He has also become a footnote to all the publicity surrounding star quarterback Mitchell. The standard pre-game advance goes like this: Quarterback Scott Mitchell's prime target will be all-WAC tight end Dennis Smith. . .

However reluctant he is to be in the public eye, he doesn't waste any time holding back with teammates. Smith's on-field demeanor is one of constant needling and teasing. Offensive coordinator Jack Reilly calls him Dennis the Menace.

He is, by his own admission, "a loudmouthed, obnoxious type of guy." More accurately, he is an accomplished satirist, which doesn't always work out with the coaches. While they give him considerable rope with which to express his style, Smith admits he goes too far on occasion, making remarks that border on being disruptive. Often the comments are complaints about instructions he has heard for five years.

However, the coaches seem to understand his behavior. "I think if you were a teacher in elementary school," says Reilly, "and you had to have a kid checked for hyperactivity, it would be Dennis."

Reilly continues: "His interaction with teammates is constantly one of, uh, jocularity. If you were in a classroom situation and evenyone was in there painting, he would be the kid over there banging on the computers."

Not that Smith was ever a problem child. He was a respectable 3.2 GPA student at Hemet (Calif.) High and a member of the student government. He played football, basketball ("I can't shoot very well anymore.") and track ("I hate to run. I'll get a bike or something, but I won't run after I'm out of football unless I get so fat I absolutely have to.")

"I was the little high school jock the teachers love," says Smith.

After an all-league career as a running back, he entertained plans to attend junior college. He was contacted by Stanford and Long Beach State, but only Utah came through with a major college offer. "I'm lucky to be here," he says. "Nobody was knocking down my door."

Smith redshirted in 1985 and the following year spent most of his time on special teams. Because of an extraordinary dose of inquisitiveness, he was constantly asking questions, pushing the limits on everyone within earshot. "As a freshman I'll bet he asked 10 times more questions than any other player or student I've ever been around," says Reilly.

Inquisitiveness wasn't an indication of an underlying lack of confidence. After his freshman season he announced to Reilly and kicking coach Sean McNabb that he would be the punter the next year - ignoring the fact that he had never punted before.

He never did become a punter, but in 1987 he began to emerge as one of the team's better players. He was named the team's offensive player of the game in the Utes' win over Wisconsin. He caught 32 passes for 351 yards that year. Last season Smith started every game, making 51 catches for 726 yards. So far this year, he has 31 catches for 393 yards.

Part of Smith's success is due to what he considers an illusion of being slow. He is relatively short for a tight end (6-feet) and stocky (233 pounds). Teammates call him "Gumby," in reference to what he terms "my non-athletic looking body."

But he was fast enough to win the league 200-meter championship in high school and can run a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. "I don't look like I would be able to outrun anyone," says Smith. "I look like a slow fullback. People will look at me and say, `What's he trying to pull?' "

Smith also has exceptionally good hands and rarely drops a pass. Against San Diego State last Saturday, he made a dazzling one-handed catch that left the Aztecs gaping. "He has not reached his potential yet," insists Reilly. "He has many great, complete games left to play."

Smith's main interest is his family. He and his wife, Tricia, have a baby son which he says is the closest thing to a hobby he has time for. He also adores Stephen King novels - which may have helped build a tolerance for some of the horrifying scenes he's experienced with the Utes.

He will graduate in December with a degree in speech communication and plans to move on to law school.

Smith doubts he will make a career in show biz, as others in his family have. That's not his style. He may never act in a commercial or play trumpet on the Carson show, but he does share center stage on the football field, where he has become a very visible dude, indeed.