Andre Smith likes the heat.
After offensive coordinator Hue Jackson gets done this spring “putting his foot up your butt so to speak,” Smith says, the Bengals right tackle heads back home to Birmingham, Ala., later this month where his friend Mike McCoy makes the thermostat hit 100 degrees at times in the Warehouse Performance Gym.
“Prepare him physically and mentally,” says McCoy, Smith’s former teammate at Alabama. “He’s come a long way in the last year. I know he can be the best right tackle, but I tell him, ‘Look, you’ve never been to a Pro Bowl, nobody’s talking about you.’ And that motivates him.”
Jackson is certainly talking about him as the Bengals start their second week of voluntary practices Tuesday. He thinks this is Smith’s season to emerge. After five years of play that has computed to flashes of brilliance mixed with blurbs of inconsistency, Jackson says it is time for him to become more vocal while also taking his rightful place atop the right tackle rankings.
And he likes what he sees as Smith starts embracing the role of veteran leader.
“In my opinion, this Andre Smith is a different Andre Smith than the one I’ve ever seen,’ Jackson says. “He’s a more focused, agile, hungry guy after something.”
Since Smith came back from the 2011 lockout with a gleam in his eye and an eye on his seam, the Bengals have won and Smith is a big reason why. He’s played in every game but two while becoming one of the game’s premier run blockers.
Ray “Rock,” Oliver, the former assistant Bengals strength coach who developed a close relationship with Smith, believes he’s one of the most powerful players in the NFL.
“You can get fooled in this league,” Oliver says. “You may not think a guy look likes much and then the next thing you know you’re a defensive end playing safety because you’ve just been flung back into the secondary.”
His partner at left tackle,
“You put on tape and you know our tackles are going to play 100 percent 1-on-1 football and that means they’re a danged good player,” Whitworth says. “That’s the reason Anthony Collins (started) how many games (25) and got $30 million.
“(Smith) continues to get better every year. There’s no reason he can’t be the best right tackle in the game,” Whitworth says. “You have to look at what guys are asked to do…For what he’s asked to do. Drop-back protection, protect the quarterback, go one-on-one with guys, no help, no chips, no slides (protections), he’s the best right tackle in the game…A lot of stats are very misleading.”
But Jackson has also been talking to Smith and telling him how he’s going to help him become the NFL’s best right tackle. Just like Jackson has been telling a three-time Pro Bowler in
“Joe Pendry,” Smith says. “He always reminds me of my coach. Hue is like, ‘I’m going to be like Pendry.”
Smith likes the tough love. He better. Here it comes.
“He should be the best right tackle in football. He has the ability. I think he has the want to. It’s just doing it all the time,” Jackson says. “It’s just the consistency of what I think he is that needs to show up all the time. I think he’s a really, really good player. He’s very important to what we do. He’s as important as Whit.
“But like anything, he’s so talented some guys don’t play to their level of ability all the time. Just because maybe not playing upper echelon players, whatever that is, but in the NFL you have to bring it every play, every week all the time. Not that he hasn’t, but my challenge to him is be the Andre Smith that I think is the best right tackle in football.”
Smith likes the motivation because now at 27 years old he understands. Particularly after a difficult 2013 when he went untouched on the free-agent market until the draft and then sat out the spring because of personal reasons.
Oliver has seen Smith respond to that tough love.
“Andre is like the old Soviet Union. The only thing he understands is force,” Oliver says. “If you make him max out at his potential, 90 percent of the time he’ll be better than the guy across from him….He’s one of the most intimidating blockers in football.”
Smith re-signed with the Bengals for three years at $18 million and admits free agency was “a learning experience...you have to have your chips in a row if you want to get the things you want and it was a great thing to learn from.”
Smith catches himself doing those things Jackson has urged. He is talking more in practice. He’s showing guys how to step correctly when they don’t or praises them when they use their hands properly.
“Hue likes to get the best out of me. That’s all he’s trying to do. He’s a great motivator,” Smith says. “I think I’m much different from a year ago…Just trying to do all those little things that make you a great teammate.”
There have been signs Smith has been headed this way. The notorious shirtless 40-yard pro day dash in ‘09, the long rookie holdout, and a chronic foot injury doomed his first two years with an image he hasn’t been able to shake. Whitworth looks at the perception wars being fought by Johnny Manziel and Rob Gronkowski and thinks it has taken away from what Smith has accomplished on the field.
Last year, Whitworth, the Papa Bear of the offensive line, took it upon himself to move his locker next to Smith’s. At Christmastime, Smith and Whitworth sprung for gifts for everyone on offense.
“He and I go way back to when I tried to recruit him to LSU. Obviously I wasn’t very good at that,” Whitworth says. “We want to be the best tandem in the league, so I moved over here.
“We’ve known each other for a long time. I’m proud of whom he’s become and the work he’s put in to show people who he really is. He went through a lot of the speculation and the crap that Manizel and Gronkowski are going through right now. Some of it was self-created, some of it wasn’t. At the end of the day, he’s worked his tail off to basically dispel those rumors and prove the kind of football player he is. If he hadn’t had to fight that, would he be considered something like the J.J. Watt of his class? I think he’s as good a football player as any right tackle. The difference is he had to fight that uphill battle.”
Another factor is that Smith doesn’t say much. He calls himself “quiet and reserved,’ and has been since he was little, he says. It may be just a coincidence that another quiet and reserved guy is the reason he’s been a Yankees fan since he was in third grade. His frequently worn Yankees hat is a tribute to shortstop Derek Jeter.
“I (like) the way he carries himself. A very private person,” Smith says. “You hardly ever know what he has going on. Stays to himself. Great teammate.”
Smith goals are for the team to get better and for his pass protection to get better. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander thinks it already has.
“He’s so powerful and quick. He’s a tremendous athlete for a big man,” Alexander says. “He used to block more on his athletic ability. He’s so quick, he’s unbelievable. He’s a freak….He was a young guy coming out who was blessed with unbelievable athletic ability, and he never really had to harness his technique. He’s done that now on and off the field.”
McCoy played wide receiver at Alabama and returned kicks before becoming a strength coach. In the weeks leading up to his deal with the Bengals last season, Smith hooked up with his old college teammate and it clicked.
Ironically, really, because McCoy had been watching videos of what Oliver had been doing in his next life as the University of Kentucky strong man
The religious McCoy was nicknamed “Church Boy,” by his ‘Bama mates, but he was a devil in the weight room, asking the coach after sessions, “Is that all?” Smith first told him, “I can’t do all this crap,’ but now McCoy not only trains Smith, but his mother, father, younger siblings, and his wife.
“It really is a family affair. We’re both raised in the church and have that foundation,” McCoy says. “When he came back this offseason, I told him if he was more than 355 pounds, I was going to run him into the ground. But he was where he should have been and there were times after we worked out in the day he’d call me at 8 or 9 at night and say, ‘I want another one.’”
That’s what Smith seems to be telling Jackson after the challenge. But he knows there’s only one way to have the last word.
“I say what I need to say on the field,” Smith says.