One day it would come, Jake Spavital knew. And he playfully reminded his former pupil of that every week.
"I can't wait to see you throw an interception," he used to tease Geno Smith.
Spavital, Smith's former quarterbacks coach at West Virginia, has always known how important it is for Smith to protect the football. That's why his string of six straight games without an interception as a Mountaineers senior was so impressive.
And that's also why Smith's rookie season with the Jets -- and his 13 interceptions -- are so startling to Spavital.
"I didn't think he would throw that many interceptions," Spavital, now the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, said by phone from College Station, Texas. "I thought he'd make better decisions and take care of the ball better."
Smith's mistakes have been well documented this season. Although he's struggled occasionally while adjusting to the NFL's steep learning curve, he has led his new team to a surprising 5-4 record and a potential shot at the playoffs.
Now Smith has seven weeks to prove he can limit his turnovers.
His first year in the league has been punctuated by dramatic game-winning drives and head-scratching decisions. And after games in which Smith performed below expectations, Spavital has fired off a playful text message to his former player.
"Sometimes I'll text him and say, 'You had me screaming at the TV today,' " he said with a laugh. "And Geno's like, 'Well, you [and Texas A&M] had me screaming at the TV yesterday.'
"We keep in touch that way. I just let him know that I'm watching. And I'm happy for him. I know he's going to keep trying to be the best quarterback he can be."
Every week this season has presented a new challenge for Smith, a second-round pick who had to adapt to the NFL and a new offensive system led by Jets coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. And it hasn't been easy, especially in the beginning.
"We butted heads early, just like any guy coming in," quarterbacks coach David Lee said. "He was late for a meeting and I went nuts on him and he had to learn. You're not late ever, for anything.
"I'm just dead honest with him and pour out my heart and I want him to be the same way with me. And I think it's why we've got a great relationship today because we're both really honest with each other."
Despite the Jets' impressive record (considering their makeshift offense), Smith insists he's not satisfied with his production. He said he spent the team's bye week studying at the practice facility.
When asked this past week if he planned to do anything that didn't involve football during the bye, Smith said, "I'll try to, but I don't think it's going to work. I'll definitely try to do some things with my family and kind of take my mind off things for a second."
That type of focus isn't at all surprising to Spavital.
"He has his social life. But it's nothing you're ever going to really read about," he said. "He knows where he's at and the limelight. And he has a lot of personal goals and I think he wants to prove people wrong -- that he can be a quarterback in this league and a quarterback that can play for a long time. He's very self-motivated."
Smith, however, has gotten himself in trouble by trying to do a little too much. At times, he strayed from the game plan, Lee said. And he has complicated matters with several bad throws.
Smith had "a lot of freedom" within his college system, Spavital said. But Smith also occasionally struggled with fumbles in the pocket.
"I know Geno," Spavital said. "He likes to put himself in the perfect play."
West Virginia started the 2012 season with five straight wins, a stretch in which Smith posted 1,996 passing yards and 24 touchdown passes. He went six straight games without throwing an interception before his streak ended with two picks in an Oct. 20 loss to Kansas State.
"He's a very honest person. He's the first one to tell me, 'Hey, I just threw a bad ball. That one's all on me,' " Spavital said.
It didn't take Lee long to learn that Smith was the same guy after a loss as he was after a victory -- always striving for perfection, always looking to get better.
"He is the calmest guy," Lee said. "I mean, he goes out pregame warm-ups, he's calm. We come in and beat New England [30-27 in overtime in Week 7], he's just as calm as can be. I just wanted to slap him and say, 'Hey, we won!' "
There's still a lot of football to be played this season. But if the past nine weeks are any indication, his future -- and the Jets' -- could be bright.
Highlighting Smith's "great arm talent," his escapability and his passing prowess, Lee said matter-of-factly: "I've had long enough to feel good about him and his future here with us."