Watching graduate transfer Anu Solomon start Baylor’s first two games, sophomore Zach Smith still pictured himself as the starting quarterback.

Now with Solomon sitting out due to concussion-like symptoms, Smith will step into the starting role in Baylor’s first road game against Duke on Saturday in Durham. Freshman Charlie Brewer steps into the backup role behind Smith.

“I’m real excited to go out there and face Duke,” Smith said. “These last few weeks have been kind of rough, but I’m looking forward to moving on this week and really executing the offense. Even when (Baylor coach Matt Rhule) announced Anu, I always thought of myself as a starter and a leader on this team.”

Smith doesn’t expect to be rattled by playing on the road against an ACC opponent. He’s got some experience with four starts under his belt after replacing injured senior starter Seth Russell in the ninth game last season.

Playing before 86,249 fans in Norman, Smith stepped in for the injured Russell against Oklahoma and threw for 144 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown pass to KD Cannon.

After losing his first three starts against Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia, Smith led the Bears to a 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl by hitting 28 of 39 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns.

“I think I grew up a lot last year in those four games,” Smith said. “I’m light years ahead. I’ve got some more experience coming in, and I’ve really been preparing hard these last few weeks, and I’m going to prepare hard this week.”

Smith hopes to give the Bears the spark they need to win their first game after a season-opening 48-45 loss to Liberty and a 17-10 loss to UTSA. Like his teammates, Smith was surprised the Bears lost the first two games after an inspired preseason camp.

“We had a really good camp and we go out there and we don’t play our best football,” Smith said. “It’s rough mentally knowing we can do it and we don’t go out there and do it. Against UTSA, we just didn’t come out, we weren’t flying around, we weren’t executing and we were missing tons of assignments. Watching from the sidelines, seeing what we were doing last week, I know that we’ve got to have urgency, we’ve got to really pick up our pace.”

Smith has the strongest arm among the Baylor quarterbacks but doesn’t have Solomon’s mobility. However, Smith can move quicker than he did last season since he’s lost weight and is no longer playing on an injured ankle.

The Bears will face a Duke team that’s off to a 2-0 start following wins over North Carolina Central and Northwestern. The Blue Devil defense was particularly impressive in last Saturday’s 41-17 win as it limited Northwestern to 191 yards total offense while forcing three turnovers and collecting four sacks.

“They’re big, they’re physical, they play hard every play,” Smith said. “We’ve got to be grown men out there. They’re a grown-men football team, so we’re going to have to go out there and play them with the best we’ve got.”

Rhule is confident Smith can do the job after watching him compete against Solomon and Brewer throughout spring drills and preseason camp. Rhule thinks Smith is burning to play after watching most of the first two games from the sidelines.

With last year’s four starts under his belt, Smith has become more confident as a leader.

“He got out there today and he’s yelling at guys where to get lined up,” Rhule said. “He’s fighting, he’s scratching, he’s clawing to get his chance. I think he’s healthy. I’ve never really seen Zach move around because he came off that injury in the bowl game in the spring. He 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.”

When Solomon went out for one play with a cut against UTSA, Rhule saw how eager Smith was to play when he stepped in and threw a 16-yard completion to Chris Platt on the opening drive of the game.

“I just was impressed that Zach threw his helmet on, when he’s out on the sideline with his headset and we see blood, and he goes out there and completes a 16-yard in-cut in man-to-man coverage with people all around him,” Rhule said. “I said to myself ‘OK, that’s hard to do.’ When he was running out there I said, ‘Do you want to run or throw it?’ and he just kind of laughed and ran out there, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s my kind of guy.’”

Smith will line up behind sophomore center Sam Tecklenburg who replaces freshman Ryan Miller. Senior Ishmael Wilson will move into Tecklenburg’s former left guard spot.

“Ryan’s still going to play and Teck’s still going to play,” Rhule said. “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.”

Beginning with the Duke game, Baylor’s schedule will get much tougher with No. 2 Oklahoma on Sept. 23 at McLane Stadium, Kansas State on Sept. 30 in Manhattan and Oklahoma State on Oct. 14 in Stillwater. But Rhule is looking forward to the challenge.

“Oh, I’m excited about it,” Rhule said. “I think this is what our kids need, to be quite honest. I think they need to play a game that they’re not picked to win. Where’s the pressure right now? Go play. I see the weight of the world on them and I tell them, ‘Go play. Let’s just go play and have fun.’”

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