A year ago, Brad Smith came out of nowhere, earning Missouri’s starting quarterback job as a redshirt freshman.
This season, Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons made a similar rise from relative obscurity to the national spotlight.
The similarities don’t go much beyond that, though. Smith and Symons are earning national attention in different ways and took different paths to prominence, but both are widely considered among the best quarterbacks in the Big 12 Conference and the nation.
On Saturday, Smith and Symons meet in what promises to be a shootout of Wild West proportions.
“It’s great to have two of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12 on the field together,” Missouri quarterbacks coach David Yost said. “It’s good competition for Brad to go out and try to outcompete and outplay B.J. Symons, who’s having a phenomenal season.”
This time last year, Symons was sitting the bench, backing up Kliff Kingsbury, an All-Big 12 quarterback. Kingsbury was a star in Texas Tech’s pass-heavy offense, while Symons, then a junior, was coach Mike Leach’s best-kept secret.
“He told me last year that his backup quarterback was as good as Kingsbury,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “And guess what – I’ll believe everything he says now because this guy’s good.”
Good is an understatement. Through seven games, Symons leads the NCAA in eight statistical categories, averaging 500 passing yards per game.
Missouri free safety Nino Williams II said he hadn’t heard of Symons a year ago.
“Nah,” Williams said. “It was the Kingsbury show.”
“Most definitely,” Williams said. “Who hasn’t seen SportsCenter when the man – what, four games he throws over 2,000 yards? That’s brilliant. He’s one of the top football players in the Big 12 offensively.”
Symons has shocked many who expected a drop-off in the Red Raiders’ offense when Kingsbury’s eligibility expired.
“The outside perception going into the season was that we were going to fall off a little bit,” Symons said. “But we were thinking the opposite, that we were going to be even better.”
The Red Raiders have been better, and Symons is wiping out many of Kingsbury’s marks. Kingsbury set a Big 12 record when he threw for 510 yards against Missouri last season, but Symons has topped that three times, including 661 passing yards against Mississippi, the third-most in NCAA history.
Product of the system?
The debate goes like this: Those Texas Tech quarterbacks throw for so many yards because they play in that system.
Don’t tell Leach that.
“I’ve never bought into any of that; that’s like saying that all these other guys don’t have coaches,” Leach said.
“The next guy that you run into that thinks he’s a product of the system, you send him up to practice. I’ll let the guy watch film all day long, and then he can pick out five plays that he wants to run and we’ll see if that guy can execute those plays.”
To say the system doesn’t play any role in Symons’ success would be misleading, though. In Leach’s wide-open offense, the passing game is the only game in town. Symons has attempted 397 passes; Smith, by comparison, has attempted 182. He attempted 366 last season.
“I think obviously the system promotes the quarterback because you throw so much,” Pinkel said. “But you still have to be a real good quarterback to do what this guy’s doing. This guy is real accurate; he sees things. He’s a very impressive player. The numbers speak for themselves.”
The numbers are ridiculously high. Symons has thrown for 3,506 yards and 32 touchdowns, both of which rank first in the nation by a long shot. North Carolina State’s Philip Rivers has the second-most passing yards with 2,539 and three players have 22 touchdown passes.
“When you pass on every down, you have no choice but to break all passing records,” Missouri receiver Thomson Omboga said. “That’s to be expected when you sling the ball on every play. I’m sure if Brad came out and threw on every down he would break every record also.”
While Symons was serving his fourth year behind Kingsbury (including Symons’ redshirt season) last season, Smith was learning the ropes as Missouri’s starting quarterback.
Some have questioned why Symons stayed at Texas Tech rather than transferring to another school when he knew he wouldn’t start for four years. Symons said he didn’t want to go back on his commitment to Texas Tech, and he said he could see he would play as a senior.
“You don’t expect to go to college and sit on the bench for four years,” Symons said. “I just felt like the one opportunity I had this year would outweigh everything else.”
It did. Symons benefited from learning the system from Kingsbury, who perfected it in his time at the helm. Smith had his redshirt season to learn the ropes, but he didn’t have a mentor to show him. Incumbent starter Kirk Farmer was also adjusting to a new system because it was Pinkel’s first season at Missouri.
“B.J. Symons is a senior, so he got to spend some time learning behind Kingsbury, who was a phenomenal player also in the system,” Yost said. “He got to learn and get a lot of experience from watching that. When Brad played as a redshirt freshman, he did a lot more learning on the go.”
There are, of course, less subtle differences between Smith and Symons.
“I don’t think they rely on (Symons) as much to make the yards running for them,” Yost said. “It’s all throw, throw, throw, and he’s done a phenomenal job of finding guys. His completion percentage and passing efficiency rating and all that are so high.”
Smith represents the new standard among quarterbacks, the multifaceted athlete who can beat defenses passing or running. In 2002, Smith became the second player in NCAA Division I to gain 1,000 yards rushing and passing in the same season.
Leach gushes when asked about Smith’s ability, as do most opposing coaches.
“He’s the ultimate multidimensional guy,” Leach said. “What Smith does, is he can run and he can throw it. There are all these guys that people claim they can run and throw, and the truth of the matter is that most of them can’t.
“Most of them are better at one then the other. They are good at throwing and then they can run some, or they are really good at running and they can sort of throw. This guy can really do both, he really can run and throw.”
Symons is known for his passing, for obvious reasons, but unlike many pocket quarterbacks, he is also mobile. He has rushed for five touchdowns.
“You might not say anything about B.J. taking off and getting out of the pocket,” Outlaw said. “But he’s done that a little bit this year. He’s ran for some touchdowns and made plays when he had to, and Brad’s done the same for us.”
Missouri outside safety David Overstreet said the two types of quarterbacks present different problems for a defense.
“With a mobile quarterback, you’ve got to respect that he’ll get out there and make plays with his feet,” Overstreet said. “With a guy like Symons, who has a strong arm, you’ve got to respect the fact that he can thread the needle, too.”
After starting the season as the unknown “new guy” leading Texas Tech’s offensive juggernaut, it didn’t take Symons long to make a name for himself.
Symons threw for 297 yards in the season opener against Southern Methodist, a good passing game by most standards, but subpar for the Red Raiders.
Since then, Symons has thrown for at least 400 yards in every game and more than 500 four times.
“It’s kind of intimidating when a man throws for 500 yards a game,” Missouri defensive back Shirdonya Mitchell said. “That’s not easy.”
Sure, Symons plays in an offensive system that churns out prolific passing numbers annually, but Leach said the system works under Symons because he has the right tools.
“He’s real accurate; he makes great decisions,” Leach said. “He’s got a strong arm and he’s got quick feet. I don’t know that I’d categorize him as fast, but he’s got quick feet.”
Luckily for Symons, those quick feet didn’t carry him away from Texas Tech. He paid his dues as Kingsbury’s backup, and he is a Heisman Trophy candidate, though he said such awards are the furthest thing from his mind.
“I’m having the time of my life, just being out of the field and having the chance to play,” Symons said. “I can’t worry about Heisman and other awards when I’m just now getting on the field and I’m having fun doing it.”