CORTLAND, N.Y. -- As he watched Geno Smith throw four touchdowns against Texas last October, a veteran NFL talent evaluator turned to an acquaintance and remarked, "There's the No. 1 pick in the draft."
As it turned out, Smith wasn't anybody's No. 1 pick, let alone the top overall choice. West Virginia slumped, the scrutiny of Smith intensified and teams began to question his intangibles.
On Friday night in Detroit, Smith -- three months removed from his embarrassing, draft-day slide to the second round -- takes the first step in what he hopes will be an "I-told-you-so" season for the New York Jets in the team's preseason opener. After a lackluster spring, Smith has improved in training camp, surprising teammates and maybe some coaches.
Smith has made up ground on Mark Sanchez, and the starting job is there for the taking. But now is when it gets interesting. The red jersey comes off, and there's real hitting. Training camp is flag football for quarterbacks. Now we'll see Smith, slated to relieve Sanchez after a series or two, in an entirely different environment.
"I don't give a [crap] how he looks in shorts," said the talent evaluator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "How will he react when he gets knocked on his ass three or four times? Will he blame the offensive line? How will he handle that?"
"The things that were said before the draft weren't off. He has the talent, but I'm not a fan of the other stuff. He's not Matt Ryan. His intangibles aren't strong. That will always be a problem. He won't handle success well, and he won't handle failure well."
Influential people inside the Jets' organization believe Smith should've been a first-round pick. The physical talent is obvious -- a strong, accurate arm and the ability to make plays with his feet. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called him "ultra-talented" and "quite a little bit more dynamic" than Sanchez because of his athleticism.
But this isn't a Punt, Pass & Kick competition. Throwing the football is only part of the quarterback's job. In his early days, Chad Pennington was stunningly average on the practice field, prompting worry among teammates, but he became a different player in a game setting, lifting those around him with his mind and his competitiveness.
Can Smith be that guy? He gives you the "wow" moments on the safe fields of Cortland, but can he handle the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1? Can he go to New England after only three days of preparation and beat Bill Belichick?
Make no mistake, the organization wants Smith to grab the job. One team insider said, "That's the plan." But if Rex Ryan & Co. isn't comfortable with him after two preseason games, they will name Sanchez the starter and try to spin it into a positive, attempting to convince a frustrated fan base that it's for the good of the team.
"I'm in there with an open mind," said Ryan, who knows he'll get fired if his quarterback has another 26-turnover season.
Against the Lions, Smith is expected to get a series with the starters and a lot of work with the backups. He'll probably flip-flop with Sanchez next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The coaches will evaluate Smith on how he manages the game -- getting the offense out of the huddle on time, making pre-snap adjustments, avoiding penalties and negative plays.
Another key will be how he handles himself under center. At West Virginia, Smith operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun. Basic five- and seven-step drops are new concepts to him. Mornhinweg's offense is all about precision. If the quarterback takes a four-step drop instead of five, it throws off the timing of the entire play.
"Footwork has been my biggest improvement," Smith said. "I feel a lot more comfortable with it. I'm not thinking about it at all when I'm on the field. I know it. I'm pretty sound on my reads."
Smith will step into a huddle filled with veterans, players that have played with several quarterbacks in their careers. Players can tell a real leader from a fraud. It will be fascinating to see how the team responds to Smith, who lost six of his final eight starts in college.
To his credit, Smith seems unaffected by the scrutiny, claiming he won't be nervous Friday night.
"I never have butterflies," he said. "I've never been that type of person. I don't think I get nervous at all."
We shall see.