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Passing grades

Rivals Smith, Stanton maintain friendship

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They were teenagers, trying to prove themselves and dreaming of becoming college football stars.

When Troy Smith and Drew Stanton roomed together at a quarterbacks camp five years ago, each saw something in the other that drew them closer. They were almost inseparable during seven days of intensive practices. At night, they'd talk about what they hoped to become and how they'd go about getting there.

Tomorrow, they'll be on opposing sides for the last time in their college careers. Smith leads No. 1 Ohio State into Michigan State to take on Stanton and the Spartans. The friendship is bound to go on long after the competition ends.

``You know what kind of a friend he is from the time you meet him," said Smith, a Cleveland high school star who was still trying to prove to recruiters he could be a college quarterback when he met Stanton at the Elite 11 camp in 2001. ``I know our relationship will continue to grow. I just can't say enough about the guy."

Stanton, who was a high school star in Farmington Hills, Mich., adds, ``Troy and I have similar personalities. He's a great guy. We don't necessarily have to talk about football 24/7. We can draw different parallels when we're on the field and doing stuff. But at the same time we can talk and realize that playing college football is a lot of fun."

Smith showed up at the invitation-only camp thinking he had something to prove. He had been labeled as a running quarterback. Many colleges were hoping to turn him into a defensive back.

``That was pretty much the biggest accolade that I had ever received when I was coming out of high school and I got that [invitation] letter in the mail," Smith said. ``It was smooth sailing from there on out because that was a quarterbacks camp. It wasn't about running the ball. It was about what was in your brain."

Also at the camp was Justin Zwick, an acclaimed Ohio prep star who had already been ordained as Ohio State's next great quarterback.

Zwick was seen as a big, rangy signal-caller. Smith, who accepted a scholarship to Ohio State after the camp, was initially seen as a guy who could run but was an erratic passer. But he always burned with the desire to show that he was more than just a scrambler. Two years ago, Smith took over for an injured Zwick and has been the Buckeyes' top player at the position ever since.

Smith, a 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pound senior who already has a communications degree, is completing 68 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Years later, Smith can recite the other quarterbacks who were at the camp -- former Texas standout Vince Young, UCLA's Ben Olson, and Pittsburgh's Ryan Palko, among others -- and what each is doing now. It's clear that he has kept score on how he has fared against such a blue-ribbon group.

Stanton, a 6-3, 230-pound senior, is in his third year as the starting quarterback for the Spartans. He's completing 62 percent of his passes and is second in the Big Ten in total offense at 248 yards a game. Despite Michigan State's disappointing three-game losing skid, few question Stanton's abilities.

Stanton and Smith trade text messages, calls, and e-mail on a regular basis.

``I talk to him all the time -- talked to him this week," Smith said. ``When we talk, it's not about the game. It's more along the lines of, how you doing, what else is going on in your life. Because everybody else talks about football."

Both take a measure of pride in how things have worked out.

``We've taken a similar road to have what success we've had," Stanton said. ``He's obviously having a lot of success this year. He's probably the front-runner for the Heisman right now. He might be the best quarterback in the nation."

Not long after the final play tomorrow night in East Lansing, Smith and Stanton will seek each other out for a rare face-to-face conversation. As their college careers wind down, they'll undoubtedly remain in touch.

``It's a great relationship. Drew Stanton is a first-class guy and a warrior through and through," Smith said. ``I know when we play them he's going to give us his all. I can't begin to express the way I feel about him."

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