Smoker#039;s long climb back has him atop MSU ladder

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 5, 2003

The Associated Press

Jeff Smoker's long, slow climb back to football led him to the top of a ladder.

The Michigan State senior quarterback missed the final five games of the 2002 season with a substance-abuse problem. As he spiraled out of control so did the football program, culminating in the firing of coach Bobby Williams.

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Smoker entered an intensive inpatient treatment program and was treated for his problem for several months.

''It wasn't just one substance, and I don't believe that saying the specific substance is the issue,'' he said after he was suspended. ''But I did abuse them, and it really did affect me.''

Smoker was reinstated as a starter in mid-August after a steady regimen of 6 a.m. workouts and close supervision by new MSU coach John L. Smith.

In his first game back last Saturday against Western Michigan, Smoker completed 21 of 34 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns in a 26-21 win.

After the game, Smoker directed the marching band in a postgame salute.

''Getting up on that ladder was the coolest thing I've ever done -- except waving the flag after the Michigan game,'' Smoker said, referring to a last-second win in 2001 over the Wolverines. ''But that's college football. There's nothing like it.''

SOFT START: Minnesota might have the weakest nonconference schedule in the Big Ten (Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio, Louisiana-Lafayette), and the Gophers are roundly criticized for it.

A rankled coach Glen Mason said the Big Ten is so good -- four teams are ranked this week and three more are knocking on the door of the Top 25 -- that his team can't afford to load up on big-name opponents during the preseason.

''Let's play a tougher non-league schedule,'' he said sarcastically. ''That's what we need. Huh?''

AIR JOE?: Without an experienced tailback and with a stable of wide receivers, Penn State coach Joe Paterno said before the season that his Nittany Lions might pass 30 to 40 times per game.

In a 23-10 victory over Temple, with Zack Mills completing just six of 17 passes for 79 yards. Tony Johnson's only catch was a 56-yard touchdown pass from Mills.

There was plenty of blame to go around.

''I thought I played like a freshman,'' Johnson said