Cruising along at the All-America pace he became accustomed to a year ago, BYU tight end Chris Smith comes into today's game against San Diego State with 17 catches and 262 yards already to his credit this season. Every time he catches the ball he's good for a 15-yard gain, or a first down and a half. If there's a BYU receiver the SDSU Aztecs would love to have on their sideline, Smith would no doubt be it.

And to think they could have had him all to themselves.Any college on the West Coast, for that matter, could have had Chris Smith back in the summer of 1987. That was when he hadn't yet been named a first-team All-American by The Sporting News (last season), or the highest rated tight end in the country coming into the 1990 season by the NFL scouting combine. That was when he wasn't even a household name in his own household.

He had spent the previous two years as a Mormon missionary, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and when he came home to La Canada, Calif., near L.A., he had plans of finally getting his collegiate football playing career started. But there was a problem.

He was the only one.

Nobody else was interested.

There was the University of Arizona, where Smith spent the 1984 season as a redshirt freshman. The Wildcats weren't interested because Smith had played under Coach Larry Smith (no relation), who had since moved on to USC and had indicated he'd be taking his young tight end with him.

There was USC. The Trojans weren't interested because Coach Smith thought Chris would have to give up two years of eligibility under Pac-10 transfering rules and he didn't want to give up a scholarship for just two years' return.

And there were all the schools Chris called personally on the phone during the summer of '87, offering his services. There was San Diego State, and there was UCLA. There was even the University of Pacific. "You name the school, I probably called it," says Chris, able now to smile about it even though, at the time, he was not at all serene.

"I was nervous and I was stressed," he says. "I wanted to play somewhere, and everybody had a full roster. Nobody had any room. I thought I was going to be going to Glendale Community College," a school just down the road from his home.

Actually, there was one major college offer on the table. It was from the University of Utah. But Smith wasn't interested, due in large part to the fact the four boys in the Smith family older than Chris - he's fifth in a family of 10 children - had attended Brigham Young and the feeling between the schools had rubbed off on Chris.

Then, with only two days left before preseason workouts were to begin in August of 1987, Smith got a call from BYU. The Cougar coaches had learned that Ralph Martini, a quarterback who had been converted to tight end against his will, had transferred to San Jose State. They had also learned from Ken Smith, Chris' older brother who played nose guard for the Cougars through the '85 season, that Chris was sitting at home by the phone in Southern California, waiting for it to ring.

BYU had shown interest in Chris when he was a high school senior, and would have offered him a scholarship then if the Cougars hadn't landed the No. 1 tight end on their list, Trevor Molini, who was seemingly on his way to an All-America career of his own before drugs ended his playing days.

Now, in '87, they neither had Molini, or Martini for that matter.

Third choice or not, when the phone rang, Smith answered the call.

"I got in my 1981 Buick Regal diesel and drove to Provo the next morning," he recalls.

He's been driving ever since.

"I've always been a driven person," says Smith. "I'm a perfectionist. I don't know where that comes from, probably from my family and my parents, who always taught us to be the best we could be."

He played sparingly at BYU his first two seasons, then turned into a starter last year, as a junior, when his 60 pass receptions and 1,090 receiving yards led the team and not only got him named first-team All-America by The Sporting News but third-team on the Associated Press All-America list as well.

This year it's been more of the same, only more so. Four years later and Chris Smith is still acting like he's just happy to be there. For him, the hard part was finding a place to play.