Sunday, May 02, 1999

Smith gets first taste of NFL life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Akili Smith at mini-camp.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        The Akili Smith era got off to a wobbly start at 3:24 p.m. Saturday when he dropped back for his first pass as a Bengal and fluttered a 20-yard floater to wide receiver Stepfret Williams.

        Smith recovered to throw some of his advertised tight, fast spirals during the Bengals' first mini-camp practice. In fact, coach Bruce Coslet saw all the new things heaped on his first-round quarterback — from learning the cadence to setting a huddle — that he declared Smith did, “not just OK, but real well.”

        Yet there were too many wobblers for Smith's liking. So he stayed 15 minutes after the workout for some extra throws and to pass the word he won't be rah-rah with so-so days.

Jeff Blake and Smith share a laugh.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

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        “It was a decent practice today, but my expectations are so much higher. I've got to be crisp each and every day,” said Smith, wearing a sweaty No.11. “When you're a rookie quarterback you're learning the system and when you come to the line of scrimmage, you're thinking about everything instead of relaxing and playing. Today I wasn't able to relax because I'm not as familiar with the system. Hopefully it will be better tomorrow.”

        Jeff Blake, the quarterback Smith is trying to unseat, knows there will be more days like this than Smith can count. He had one word of advice Saturday.

        “Patience,” Blake said. “There are going to be times he throws an interception, he might get in the huddle, forget the play, forget the count, get out behind center and you might go blank, or you get blitzed and you don't remember where the hot receiver is. All that stuff is going to happen. You have to realize (grasping the NFL) is going to come sooner or later.”

Smith stretches
(Ernest Coleman photo)

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        In fact, Blake thinks it's unreasonable to ask Smith to play this year because the learning curve is so sharp. And he doubts the Bengals will do it after trying to force David Klingler into the lineup midway through his rookie season in 1992.

        “You guys are talking like he's going to come in and take my job. No way he can read defenses that fast,” Blake said. “No way he can come in decipher a zone blitz defense. No way. It takes a year at least, maybe two. He can go in and play, but he won't be successful. Not right now.

        “... Work him in slowly. Throw him in there right now and it's a wasted draft pick. Bruce (Coslet) knows that. (Bengals President) Mike Brown knows that.”

        Smith wants to play right away, but Saturday he kept feeling like a rookie. He was grateful to Blake for talking to him between plays Saturday, breaking down the snaps by No.3 and No.4 quarterbacks Eric Kresser and Scott Covington. But Smith also laughed when he said it was Blake who was on him to keep bringing juice and soda upstairs to the meeting room.

        Other menial rookie chores: Sharpening pencils and pushing the ball-snapping machine from the sidelines to the field.

Smith throws
(AP photo)

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        After the team meetings ended at 10 p.m. Friday, Smith and Covington went back to their hotel room and quizzed each other on the playbook until 12:30 a.m. Smith admitted he tossed and turned before falling asleep.

        “I was a little bit impatient today,” Smith said. “I know in my mind where I want to be as far as a quarterback goes and be mentally prepared the way I need to be on the field.

        “I just have to get it down pat and hopefully get a chance to play.”

        Until then, he's going to have get a few more sodas.

        “You know what the offensive line did to a rookie a few years ago?” Blake asked Smith before practice. “They taped up his hands and legs and put him in the laundry bin. Man, that's 1,500 pounds. You can't do anything.”

        Smith shook his head.

        “You guys are starting to scare me,” he said with a laugh.


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