Jets quarterback Geno Smith throws on the field before the...

Jets quarterback Geno Smith throws on the field before the preseason game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. (Aug. 24, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Within moments of stepping on the stage at Radio City Music Hall in April, Geno Smith had proclaimed that his new team, the Jets, would reach the playoffs. And during a draft-day conference call with reporters a short time later, the second-round pick said without hesitation that he can be a franchise quarterback.

If there's one thing the rookie quarterback isn't short on, it's confidence. And he'll need every ounce of it to combat the heightened scrutiny and criticism that await him this season.

Get ready, folks: The Geno Smith Era is set to begin.

And it's sure to be an exhilarating, emotionally draining and frustrating ride.

A changing of the guard is underway at One Jets Drive. And Jets Nation is hoping Smith is ready.

Smith's first test is likely to come as early as Sunday, when the Jets face their former shutdown cornerback, Darrelle Revis, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at MetLife Stadium. Smith would get the nod as the Game 1 starter because of the shoulder injury Mark Sanchez suffered against the Giants two weeks ago.

Smith has his aches, too -- growing pains. He's young, talented and blessed with a strong arm. But he's also raw. And his erratic preseason was proof of that.

Hobbled by a sprained ankle, he completed 22 of 37 passes (59.5 percent) for 246 yards in his two appearances, throwing three interceptions and a touchdown pass against the Giants. He also took a safety when, under pressure, he stepped out of the end zone.

Still, his command of the huddle and pocket poise have been touted by his teammates since minicamp.

"Geno completed some passes that sometimes you don't expect a rookie to complete,'' cornerback Antonio Cromartie said during camp.

And if Smith is able to do the one thing Sanchez couldn't during the past two seasons -- protect the football -- the job of starting quarterback should be his to lose.

Despite criticisms about his lack of toughness and inability to thrive in cold-weather conditions -- based mainly on his performance with West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium last December -- Smith piqued the Jets' interest.

Less than a month before the draft, new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, new quarterbacks coach David Lee, area scout Michael Davis and another scout traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., to get a sense of Geno Smith, the football player and person. And after spending hours with him over dinner and watching his pro day the next morning, the Jets contingent came away impressed.

Since then, he's opened eyes on the practice field, keeping pace with the fifth-year pro Sanchez at the start of training camp. And despite Smith's ankle sprain and late "dips'' on the field -- including one "brutal'' three-INT practice, according to Rex Ryan-- Mornhinweg maintained: "Geno's had an outstanding camp for a rookie.''

But after an inconsistent performance in his first preseason start against the Giants, the excitement surrounding Smith has subsided a bit. It prompted several NFL analysts, including former GM Charley Casserly, to declare that he wasn't ready for the spotlight.

"Sanchez outplayed Smith,'' Casserly recently said on air, referring to the well-publicized "open'' competition between the two. "Now, Sanchez was not perfect. In each of the games, he self-destructed. But Smith more than self-destructed when he had the opportunity to play. He's not ready to play.''

Although Smith had "a number of highlights'' against the Giants, Casserly added: "When I saw him in college, the problems I thought he had overcome, he showed them in the preseason: He held the ball, he was late on things, he forced things, he was inaccurate.''

It's clear Smith has much more to learn about being an NFL quarterback. But the Jets believe he has tremendous upside, and that's all that matters for the time being.

In Smith, they see a potentially bright future. And that may be enough of a reason for their frustrated fan base to keep the faith.

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