Discipline is the key to Smith's transition
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
On the field and off, Bucs new free safety is still learning on the job.
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003
|[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Dwight Smith, the only player in Super Bowl history to return two interceptions for touchdowns, replaces Dexter Jackson at safety.
LAKE BUENA VISTA - On a field full of players trying to make names for themselves, Dwight Smith's practice jersey is rolled up to reveal six-pack abs and tied so tightly in the back it's impossible to read the name or number.
He trusts you'll know who he is.
The only player in Super Bowl history to return two interceptions for touchdowns, Smith is making the high-profile move from cornerback to free safety. All he has to do is learn a new position and replace a Super Bowl MVP on the league's top-ranked defense.
No big deal.
"I believe in myself," Smith said.
Smith, in his third year out of Akron, was a cornerback his first two seasons, used by the Bucs as a fifth defensive back in passing situations. Last season he had seven interceptions, including three in the playoffs. Even before Dexter Jackson signed a five-year, $14-million deal with the Cardinals in the offseason, coaches considered moving Smith to safety.
Smith was eager.
"I'm ready to get on the field," the 24-year-old said. "You can't make plays on the bench, and I didn't come here for a free ride or to make the free money. I love to play football."
At corner, Smith was responsible for a single receiver in man-to-man coverage or a specific area of the field in a zone. At free safety, he is the last line of defense. Safety, he said, requires him to be more disciplined.
"All the quick-twitch fibers you use as a corner, they've got to slow down a little bit," Smith said. "You see a lot of things that you could make plays on, but it's not your play to make. At free safety you have 10 guys you have to believe are going to be in their spots. You have to stay deep and make plays when they come to you."
Smith also has vowed to make better decisions off the field. One of three Bucs who ran afoul of the law during the offseason, Smith was arrested April16 on a felony charge of aggravated assault with a firearm for pointing a gun at another motorist during a road rage incident in Clearwater. The formal charge was improper exhibition of a firearm, a misdemeanor. Smith met with coach Jon Gruden shortly after the incident.
"He said, "Everyone's entitled to one mistake, but don't let it happen again,"' Smith said.
On the field, repetition is what Smith needs most.
"He's had his good moments where you see the athletic ability, you see the instincts, you see the versatility he gives our defense because of his coverage ability and speed," Gruden said. "Obviously, whether anybody wants to admit it, this is a new position to him and there are some areas he needs to improve upon.
"His angles, his keys, his run fits, things of that nature need to improve with experience. That's why we come out here and practice in different situations - red zone, two-minute drill, blitz situations - to get him familiarized with what he needs to do and improve on."
Smith is benefiting from the experience of strong safety John Lynch and corners Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, all of whom are helping him make the transition. Based on offseason workouts and five days of training camp, teammates are impressed.
"You don't want to say corner is the easier of the two jobs, but it's the simpler of the two as far as your assignments," said Barber, who had a team-record 10 interceptions in 2001. "Safety is a different position for him, but we know what kind of player Dwight is and what kind of attitude he brings out here."
If confidence is a requisite for starting in the Bucs secondary, Smith has the credentials. He is not shy about his play-making potential or his speed, claiming to be the fastest member of the league's fastest defense. According to position coach Mike Tomlin, he also is gifted with a short memory, a valuable asset for a defensive back.
And he can hit.
"He flies around and he hits well," receiver Keenan McCardell said. "If you are a receiver looking for him, you're not looking for the ball. Your job is to catch the ball. That's the intimidation factor. I think he's going to put a lot of fear in a lot of guys because he runs well and he hits hard. He's been looking good back there."
Jackson was Super Bowl MVP, making two interceptions in the first half of the Bucs' 48-21 victory against the Raiders. Had Smith's second interception not come so late (he scored with two seconds left), he might have been chosen.
But why fret?
"I'll tell you what eased that," Smith said. "When we got back, Dexter introduced me as his co-MVP. I took that as a pat on the back. Plus, Dexter's in Arizona now, and he might not see another Super Bowl. Me? I might go back this year."
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