Justin Smith makes progress thanks to his unexpected chance to play in Tokyo.
By ROGER MILLS
Published August 6, 2003
LAKE BUENA VISTA - Opportunity.
It comes in a flash and just like that, it's gone. It's the thing all players covet and for reserve outside linebacker Justin Smith, it recently came his way.
With NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks absent from the team the past week because of his mother's illness, the team asked Smith to start the preseason opener.
Smith, 23, held his own and gave the coaching staff a hint of the linebacking depth the team will have when Brooks returns.
"When you take the field with the No.1 defense in the world, you look in the huddle and you have Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice in front of you, you look to your left and there's Shelton Quarles and you have John Lynch and Ronde Barber behind you, that's overwhelming," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "From that aspect, I think he has handled himself pretty well.
"I would have liked him to have played a little bit better, and I know he can play a little bit better and will play better."
Hampered by a left hamstring problem the week before the preseason game in Japan, Smith did not practice. Then, when the team got on the plane and players saw Brooks would not make the trip, Smith's world changed.
"Truthfully, yeah it did (shake me up a bit)," Smith said. "It kind of caught me off guard a little bit. I hadn't practiced for the entire week until we got to Tokyo, and I didn't know Derrick wasn't going to be there until we got on the plane. So, I stepped up my treatment. I had to really get refocused and not have too many butterflies."
The four-year starter at Indiana said those came the night before.
"The anticipation was worse than the real action," Smith said. "Once you get out on the field, it's just football. You make sure you do your job because you have 10 other guys counting on you. But, the night before, I couldn't (sleep)."
Last season, Smith (6 feet, 221 pounds) joined the Bucs in April as an undrafted rookie and made enough of an impression to spend the year on the practice squad. But playing behind one of the game's most durable players, Smith's chances of comprehensive playing time have always been limited. Somehow, he was ready.
"I was second team last year and as a second teamer, they prepare you just like the first team," he said. "They expect, when you're one of the 11 on the field, that you're a starter and you act and play like a starter. You make the plays a starter will make.
"It does put pressure on you but pressure turns coals into diamonds. The more pressure, the harder I have to work the more I have to study and pay attention to the details."
Barry said Smith, who worked with the first team again Tuesday, has adjusted to the speed on the first line and is aware of his good fortune.
"Now, he's getting a chance to be the weakside linebacker in pads on the field, that's when he had to shine and show up," Barry said. "A lot of people look pretty good in shorts and in practice, but now he has to be a lot of that training in shorts and translate it onto the field.
"He's got to make tackles, got to bring his pads up and knock people back. In this deal, not to mess with Andy Warhol's famous quote, but it's not 15 minutes of fame, it's more like one minute of fame, or 15 seconds to shine in the NFL."