By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
"I prepared like I was going to start each week," he said, "because you never know when you're going to go in."
Now, he does.
With Solomon in concussion protocol after Saturday's 17-10 loss to UTSA, Smith will get the starting nod when the Bears (0-2) face Duke (2-0) at 11:30 a.m. CDT Saturday in Durham, N.C.
"He's got a big-time arm, he's really smart," coach Matt Rhule said Tuesday morning in his weekly press conference, "but I think the biggest thing, as you see, is he's just a leader out there today. `I've waited my turn. I've watched for two games. I know what this team needs.' They need someone telling them to get lined up and let's go that way. I hope we see that on Saturday, and I'm pretty sure we will."
Solomon, a grad transfer from Arizona, started the first two games and threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions and also rushed for 106 yards. But, when he came in on Sunday and had some "concussion-like symptoms," Rhule said, "immediately our medical staff put him in the protocol, and I told Zach he would be the starter."
"Today was a step, to me," Rhule said of Smith, who threw for 1,526 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, starting the last four games and leading the Bears to a Cactus Bowl victory over Boise State.
"He got out there today, and he's yelling at guys where to get lined up. . . . I had never really seen Zach move around, because he was coming off that injury and limped around the whole spring. I think he can give us something in the run game. He can move around and scramble a little bit."
Smith said he is "light years ahead" of where he was a year ago when he had to be thrown in there when Seth Russell suffered his second straight season-ending injury.
"I've got some experience coming in, and I've really been preparing hard these last few weeks, and I'm going to prepare hard this week," he said. "These last few weeks have been kind of rough, but I'm just looking forward to moving on this week and really executing the offense."
Senior offensive tackle Mo Porter said the team has a lot of confidence and belief in Smith, because "we know he can go out there and do the job for us."
Rhule said the offensive struggles last week, when the Bears had just 274 total yards, converted 2-of-11 on third down and scored 10 points, "come back to me."
"It's probably me making Jeff (Nixon) and Glenn (Thomas) do some of the things they probably don't want to do," Rhule said of his co-offensive coordinators. "It's me being nervous about losing (tight end Jordan) Feuerbacher during the week and now we have Ish (Wainright) playing tight end, who hasn't really done it very much. And then the three freshman tailbacks, me not wanting to be too diverse where we miss something.
"This week, I said, `Do what you guys want to do, just make sure Ish knows what he's doing.' I've got to trust the freshman tailbacks, that they're going to go do what they need to do. I think those struggles on offense last week really come back to me not letting Jeff and those guys do what they want to do. I said, `You guys go do it this week, and I'll keep myself over here.'''
To add some bulk and experience to an offensive line that gave up four sacks and four QB hurries last week, senior Ishmael Wilson (6-5, 310) gets the start at left guard and redshirt sophomore Sam Tecklenburg (6-3, 296) slides over from guard to replace freshman Ryan Miller at center.
"We're just not big enough up front right now, so we just said let's put a 315-pound guy in there in Ish, and let's put Teck in there (at center)," Rhule said. "Ryan's still going to play and Teck's still going to play, I just felt like Ish had tremendous energy on the sidelines going back and watching the film, and I think right now we need some senior leadership. That's really always been my challenge to (Wilson), be a great teammate. And he's doing that, so he deserves a chance to go play."
After opening with back-to-back home losses, Rhule said the Bears just need "small successes, which turn into big successes, which turn into epic successes."
"Those are the victories we're looking for right now," he said. "When you lose, you have to self-evaluate. I'm doing that, I know my staff is doing that, and I know my players are doing that as well. I think winning would really help them, but they're making the most of the lessons they're learning, which is why I think we'll have a championship culture from it."
Led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones, who has passed for 518 yards and four touchdowns and added 127 yards and three TDs rushing, Duke has posted lopsided wins over North Carolina Central (60-7) and Northwestern (41-17).
"I'm excited to play a really good Duke team," Rhule said. "If I could have my son play for anybody, it would be Coach David Cutcliffe. He's been there for 10 years and does it the right way. I love watching his teams. They went 4-8 last year, but you watch and they just keep getting better and better. They're obviously one of the best teams in the ACC right now, and they look like a top-25 team. It will be a tremendous opportunity for us to go on the road and play a great team like that."
Saturday's game will be televised by the ACC/Raycom Sports Network and aired regionally by Fox Sports Southwest.