TULSA, Okla. — Following an up-and-down two years with Baylor University, Grandview’s Zach Smith is focused on his career ahead at the University of Tulsa as a Golden Hurricane.
Even though Smith showed flashes of brilliance for Baylor — whether it was lighting up No. 3 Oklahoma in 2017 to the tune of 463 yards and four touchdowns or leading Baylor to a Cactus Bowl win over Boise State as a true freshman in 2016 — it was clear the former Zebra All-American wasn’t in Baylor’s plans moving forward. So after much thought and discussions with those closest to him, Smith asked for his release from Baylor in December so he could transfer.
After being courted by several NCAA Division I programs, Smith announced in early January he would continue his athletic and academic career in Tulsa, where he has prior connections with Golden Hurricane Coach Philip Montgomery.
“Why Tulsa? Well, it’s a great school academically and has some of the nation’s top programs,” Smith said. “So I feel really blessed to be here. But the main reason was Coach Monty and Coach Beau [Trahan]. They’re the ones that first recruited me out of high school and I think that’s the reason that I love being around them. The whole coaching staff is filled with great people and it feels like I’m home when I’m here.”
Smith’s relationships with Montgomery and Trahan were big reasons he verbally committed to Baylor as a sophomore at Grandview High School. But Smith never got the chance to play for Montgomery as he was named head coach at Tulsa prior to the 2016 season. And after so many regime and personnel changes at Baylor, Smith said having the chance to reconnect with Montgomery was an opportunity he didn’t want to miss out on a second time.
“Coach Monty started recruiting me during my sophomore year of high school,” Smith said. “As soon as I met him and started talking with him and going over different coverages and stuff, I knew that I would be able to play for him and get coached by him. He’s an unbelievably genuine coach and I’m stoked to get to play for him.”
Montgomery said he’s known the Smith family for quite a while, and added he’s excited Smith decided to join him in Tulsa.
“I’m extremely excited to have him join our football program at Tulsa,” Montgomery said. “I think he’ll be a great fit. Obviously, I know that he fits in with what we do offensively from a schematic standpoint, but just the type of kid he is. I think he’ll fit in well with our guys. He’s a small-town kid who understands what he has to do and how he has to do it. I think he’ll be a great asset for our program as the years go on.”
Cleburne Coach Casey Walraven, who coached Smith at Grandview, said he believes Tulsa is a great fit and is a place that can help Smith reach his full potential.
“I think it’s a good move for him,” Walraven said. “I think it fits him. Obviously the connection with Coach Montgomery makes it an easier transition for him. He knows the offense from running it all through high school. You never like to see a kid have to leave or transfer, but at that level it’s a business and you’ve got to do what’s best for your future. He definitely has NFL talent, he just needs to get somewhere he’s able to showcase that talent.”
Montgomery recalls Smith’s size, arm strength and mentality even as a young high school sophomore as reasons for why he and former Baylor Coach Art Briles extended Smith an offer at such a young age.
“Zach was a big kid who really had a great arm,” Montgomery said. “A guy that could make a ton of throws even in high school. He was a great pitcher and shortstop in high school, was a multi-sport kid. He just had a great knowledge. He came to camp and I had the opportunity to work with him. I just loved the way he attacked the game, and mentally he was a lot further ahead than a lot of guys his age. From a stature standpoint he was already 6-foot-2, and knew he would continue to grow. Zach was doing a great job leading his football team.”
Even though Smith’s two years at Baylor weren’t ideal, he said he learned a lot on and off the field during his time at Baylor.
“I think I learned a lot of great lessons, whether it was persevering through adversity, as was the case for most of my time there, or coping with change and having three different head coaches in two years,” Smith said. “I think all of that will help me later on.”
Walraven added he believes that Smith handled all of the adversity he faced at Baylor with class and it will benefit him moving forward.
“It definitely builds your character more and makes you a stronger and more confident player,” Walraven said. “He had some success to give him confidence and see he could play against the best teams in the country and do really well. I think it was a good experience for him. He got an early opportunity and now he’s needing to take that to the next level.”
When Smith committed to and signed with Baylor, the original plan was for him to redshirt and likely not see the field for at least two years. But, plans change, and Smith saw extensive playing time not only as a sophomore in 2017, but as a true freshman in 2016, less than a year removed from playing Class 3A high school football. Smith said he hopes that playing experience in the Big 12 will pay off once he gets on the field for Tulsa.
“I think [my playing experience at Baylor] is going to be very beneficial for me,” Smith said. “Getting to play against some of the best teams in the country, whether it was Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, it was a blast being out there and really competing.”
Smith concluded his Baylor career with 2,997 passing yards and 21 passing touchdowns in nine career starts, with his best performances coming against No. 3 Oklahoma in 2017 and a Cactus Bowl win over Boise State in 2016.
In a 49-41 loss to No. 3 Oklahoma last season, Smith completed 33-of-50 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns as he out-played Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman winner. The 463 passing yards were the most Oklahoma’s defense allowed all season. In a 31-12 win over Boise State in the 2016 Cactus Bowl, Smith completed 28-of-39 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
Following his move from Waco to Tulsa, Smith, 19, will have to sit out the 2018 college football season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he will be eligible for the 2019 and 2020 seasons for the Golden Hurricane, who are in desperate need of a quarterback after Tulsa threw only six touchdown passes against eight interceptions in 2017.
Montgomery said he believes Smith sitting out a year will benefit the quarterback moving forward.
“Since Zach had to play as a true freshman because of injuries and other things, I think it’s going to be a great year for Zach to sit back,” Montgomery said. “He has gametime experience already. He’s been in big games and has played well in big games. I think the year of sitting out is going to help him mature a little more physically and mentally. After being involved as a starter already, and now being able to sit back and see how the game is progressing and see what we’re doing as a coaching staff and the adjustments we’re making, I think he will grow more mentally in the next year than anything.
“It will also give him a chance to really physically get healthy. He went from high school ball and jumped into college ball. He was banged up quite a bit when he was starting those games and was able to play through it. From a maturity standpoint, it will allow him to get extremely healthy and also just get bigger, faster, stronger.”
Smith himself said while the competitor in him will miss being on the field, he also realizes having a year to get 100 percent will serve him well in the long run.
“Having to sit a year stinks but I just have to make the most out of it,” Smith said. “I’ll finally have a year where I’m healthy and I can get after it in the weight room and run and really concentrate on the little things at the quarterback position such as footwork, movement in the pocket and defensive analysis. I’ll be on the sidelines but just because I can’t play doesn’t mean I can’t evaluate the other quarterbacks and almost be like another coach and help them. By doing that I think that I’ll take my game up another level by looking at it from that perspective.”
When Smith was weighing his options about where to continue his career, he reached out to Tulsa cornerback Reggie Robinson II, of Cleburne, to get his former middle school teammate’s take on how life as a Golden Hurricane is.
“Reggie was really helpful,” Smith said. “I reached out to him and was asking him how it was and how he liked it there, and he told me that he loves it and he thought I would, too. So that made me feel pretty good. It’s going to be exciting playing with Reggie again; it will be better than him running me over in seventh-grade football.”
Before Smith moved to Grandview, he went to Smith Middle School in Cleburne, and he recalls Robinson, then in eighth grade, running right over him one day in practice when Smith was playing safety.
In 2017, Robinson was a redshirt sophomore for Tulsa, and he accounted for 38 tackles and a team-high nine pass break-ups to go along with nine passes defensed.