Friday, August 09, 2002

Justin Smith working to improve upon impressive rookie season

AP Sports Writer

Bengals defensive end Justin Smith breaks into a smile during practice on Friday.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Justin Smith doesn't say much. He prefers to let his performance on the field speak for him.

        “I don't go looking for attention,” Smith said following a morning practice at Georgetown College. “The more you talk, the more people talk about you.

        “I just go out every day and work hard to improve and help this team win. I don't worry about anything else.”

        Smith, the team's first-round draft pick in 2001, wasn't concerned after missing all of training camp and the team's four preseason games last year as he negotiated his contract.

        He signed the day before the Bengals' regular-season opener at New England and was not activated for that game.

        But he picked up his first sack in just his second game at San Diego, drilling Doug Flutie for a 13-yard loss.

        Two weeks later against Cleveland, he leveled Tim Couch for a 12-yard loss that helped force a punt.

        By season's end, Smith recorded 6.5 more sacks to break the club's rookie record of eight set by linebacker James Francis in 1990. He added 60 solo tackles and two interceptions in 15 games, 11 of which he started.

        “I wasn't surprised at all,” said Smith, who will play in his first NFL preseason game Friday night at Buffalo. “I knew what I was capable of doing. It was just a matter of working hard and getting adjusted.”

        “We weren't surprised either, Justin,” said one fan, decked out in Bengals gear from head to toe, who watched with glee as Smith scribbled his name on a football. “Take them to the Super Bowl, big man.”

        The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder blossomed midway through the season, collecting 6 1/2 sacks in the team's final eight games.

        Smith believes he can collect at least 10 sacks this year.

        “This year, I've been out here working since the first snap,” he said. “I'm sure that will make a difference.”

        Smith dominated opposing offenses in three seasons at Missouri, where he earned All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore and junior.

        He entered the NFL draft after a junior season in which he recorded 11 sacks and 24 tackles for loss despite being double- and triple-teamed on nearly every play.

        As impressive as he's been in games, Smith gets even higher marks for his work ethic.

        “He's already among the hardest workers we've ever had,” Bengals strength and conditioning coach Kim Wood said. “It's refreshing to see a player with his natural talent who wants to work so hard every day to get better.”

        Coach Dick LeBeau already considers Smith to be a leader on a defense with several talented veterans.

        “Justin is a tremendous example in the weight room without needing to say a word” to him, he said. “Part of his success can be attributed to his work ethic.”

        His teammates also have noticed his focus and desire.

        “You won't find anybody who works harder in the weight room or in practice than he does,” said defensive end Vaughn Booker, a nine-year NFL veteran. “That kind of effort motivates everybody.”

        Getting Smith's coaches and teammates to shower him with accolades is simple. Getting Smith to talk about himself is almost impossible.

        “That stuff doesn't mean anything,” he said. “As soon as you start listening to it or believing it, you lose focus.”

        The one subject Smith will expand upon, however, is the Bengals' quest to play in the postseason for the first time since 1990.

        “I'm hungry to get there,” he said. You can see that every player on this team is hungry to get there. That's the reason we're out here.”


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