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QB shows promise in debut as starter

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An hour before kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium, two weeks ago, someone behind me spoke my name. Most of the time when that happens, I hear muffled laughter. But this time it was all-time Ute passing leader Scott Mitchell and he wasn't laughing. Just smiling.

He was slim and fit, hoping to catch on with an NFL team sometime this season.

He looked good. So good, in fact, that I asked if he still had any eligibility remaining.

"They've had a few problems at quarterback since you left," I said.

Mitchell only smiled modestly.

That isn't to say he's the last good quarterback Utah ever had.

Mike McCoy and Frank Dolce didn't stick in the NFL but were above average.

As Ute quarterbacks go, they were great. But in large part, the Ute quarterbacks have been no better than average. The faces have changed, but only to moderate success. Darnell Arceneaux was athletic but injury-prone and skittish as a colt. Jonathan Crosswhite was fair but often confined to handing off. Lance Rice — Utah's No. 3 quarterback going into this year — is a respected leader but never fully secured his position. Mike Fouts, Brandon Jones, Jason Woods and T.D. Croshaw all took their turn, with only modest success.

This year the job was Brett Elliott's right up until the last play of last Saturday's game, when he broke his wrist.

Start the phonograph, Granny, it's time for another round of "musical quarterbacks."

Anyone else want to try? Anyone?

Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes began their latest, greatest quest to find a permanent, multi-faceted quarterback, and at least for now they found him. Sophomore Alex Smith led the Utes to a 31-24 win over Cal-Berkeley.

He's the man, no question . . . at least for another month.

"Things just kind of came together," said Smith.

Smith, it should be noted, entered the game amid considerable anticipation. He has been considered the most gifted quarterback in the system since arriving at school for the 2002 season. The nephew of Michigan State coach John L. Smith, he has a fine arm and the size to go with it. At 6-foot-4, he is tall enough. He added 20 pounds this off-season, which should serve him well.

But Smith's development was slightly slower than Ute fans would have liked. Last year he appeared set to redshirt, right up until former coach Ron McBride — desperate to save the season and his job — inserted him into the lineup for five plays. He was sacked twice and intercepted for a touchdown in a loss to San Diego State. He also got in for one play against New Mexico.

Isn't this where someone calls "mulligan"?

This fall he battled Elliott for the starting spot, but Elliott's experience and poise won out. Word was Smith tended to get antsy under pressure. Still, by Tuesday of this week it was clear he was the choice. They were going to try the kid.

And darned if it didn't work out. He was cool. He was poised. He was impressive. He was in command. He finished the game completing 18 of 27 passes for 136 yards. Just for good measure he added 71 yards rushing.

At least by looking at Thursday's results, Mitchell can forget his eligibility.

Smith also executed the game-winning drive. With 1:06 remaining and the score tied at 24, he rolled right. The play was designed as a shovel pass, but noting the defense had anticipated that play, he pitched to Brandon Warfield for a 14-yard scoring run.

"They kind of squared up on us, so we ran the option around the end," he said.

How long he remains the quarterback is up to conjecture. But for now he looks good enough to keep the position to himself. Given his choice, coach Urban Meyer would probably prefer a quarterback more comfortable with the run, as well as the pass. Yet Smith appears to have the key ingredients — a decent runner and good passer who can keep defenses at bay.

"I was so excited coming in. First start, first game finally here, national TV, big game. It was good. The first couple of hits got the jitters out," he said.

Thus, the Utes dispatched the Golden Bears on a midweek night.

They didn't pass them into the ground, but they wore them down with a combination. It was effective, but more than that, it was encouraging to the Utes and their fans.

Because if there's anything as bad as losing games, it's having a quarterback that ust doesn't fit.

E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com