Penn State QB Jaxon Smolik is already an overachiever.
He wasn’t supposed to go to the Elite 11 Finals— a big deal for high school quarterbacks— last summer in California.
Once he got to Cali, the kid from West Des Moines, Iowa, who missed most of the previous season with an injury, wasn’t supposed to go toe to toe with some of America’s highest-rated prep quarterbacks and be one of the camp’s stars.
𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟐 𝐄𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐞 𝟏𝟏 🏆
Determined by #Elite11 coaching staff – 50% junior season film & performance, 50% event evaluation and traits.
Listed alphabetically. pic.twitter.com/5QRnCbpXxv
— Elite11 (@Elite11) July 1, 2022
After his Elite 11 performance, Smolik wasn’t supposed to commit to Penn State. PSU already had a QB committed to its ’23 Class in Marcus Stokes. Smolik had committed to Tulane before the Elite 11 finals.
But Stokes de-committed in early July. From there, Penn State’s QB coach and offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, gladly offered Smolik a scholarship. This was after Smolik impressed at Penn State’s Elite Showcase in late-July.
Smolik ended up de-committing from Tulane. He then committed to Penn State in August. He signed with Penn State in December and enrolled within a month.
At coach James Franklin’s signing day presser, he called Smolik the “steal of the 2023 class.”
Now, the 2023 season is almost here. As most true freshmen are, Smolik has been overlooked thus far.
A portion of that also has to do with the other scholarship QBs in Penn State’s room.
Franklin’s in no rush to name a starter, but former five-star recruit Drew Allar is likely the guy. If somehow that doesn’t happen— which feels almost as probable as Billy Joel cutting a rap album— then Allar’s classmate, in-state product Beau Pribula, will be the man.
If all goes according to plan for Penn State, Smolik won’t get a lot of time at starting QB, and the time he does get will likely come in games that have already been decided.
But Smolik still has chances to impress his teammates and coaches, and according to the head coach, he’s making the most of them.
“I’d say Smolik has been a surprise in camp so far, specifically in the quarterback room,” Franklin said at Penn State’s Media Day Sunday. “He’s one of those guys that, although he’s still learning the nuances of the position and offense… he’s just got a natural feel for the position on the field.”
The man who recruited Smolik more than anyone sees the freshman as football’s version of a point guard.
“He sees the field very well,” Yurcich said. “He’s good with the spatial concepts, he sees things, and that’s a good sign.”
For Yurcich, the big things Smolik needs to work on are nothing abnormal for somebody his age.
“We’re constantly working on the mental game. … We gotta get him better in the meeting rooms,” he said. “This is typical for a young guy. We have to get him better at spitting the information out and speaking how we speak … being able to have a better recall and articulate in meetings.”
Allar and Pribula were in a similar situation to Smolik not too long ago.
Like Smolik, both cut their senior year of high school short to come to Penn State when the weather was still cold.
This year, those two have gone from the new kids in Penn State’s QB room to the veterans. They’ve been watching Smolik grow since spring practice began in March.
So how has Smolik grown from March to August?
“I think just his comfort level with the offense,” Allar said. “Obviously, me and Beau know his exact situation, both being mid-years last year and then going into fall camp. It was really different for all of us. I think Jaxon has done a great job from the spring until now of just preparing, asking the right questions, asking really good questions and really trying to understand the “why” behind everything, where in spring, he was just trying to learn everything from the base level. He’s doing a great job right now, and he’s great to be around.”
James Franklin said freshman QB Jaxon Smolik has been “the surprise” of fall camp so far. I asked Drew Allar about the strides Smolik has made since the spring. pic.twitter.com/2MDpQAP2SA
— Joe Smeltzer (@joesmeltzer775) August 7, 2023
For Pribula, Smolik has a higher comfort level than he did at the beginning and feels that, like he and Allar did more than a year ago, Smolik benefitted from enrolling early.
“I think any time— you know, I did it myself— you enroll early as a midyear in January, I think it’s a really smart decision to have a spring ball under your belt going into the fall camp,” Pribula said. “I think Jaxon’s done a great job of maturing and learning the playbook, getting more comfortable with that and also getting more comfortable with the team. I think he’s done a great job.”
There’s a lot of competition for Smolik to go through to rise to the top of Penn State’s depth chart. But if what he’s done over the past year is any indication, he’s going to be ready if and when his time comes to be the man.