Andre Smith, fan of the current World Series champions, doesn’t hesitate when asked his favorite Yankee.
“Derek Jeter,” he says. “I like the way he carries himself. He’s all business.”
Which is the way Smith is approaching his second NFL season as the Bengals right tackle in waiting. Frustrated by last week’s surgery that inserted a pin in his broken foot, Smith is still on crutches but is venturing into the weight room to get started on the program that is supposed to put the club’s first-round pick on the field in time for the May workouts. He’s projected to be running nearly a month before the field drills begin.
“You’ve got to take advantage of the situation and look at it as a positive,” Smith says. “It’s an opportunity for me to get everything in line as far as being focused.”
The Bengals saw enough WOW plays among his few rookie snaps that they know they need him. Smith knows the Bengals need him. After the broken foot in his third practice of the season limited him to part-time action in the last seven games, Smith has a Jeter-esque vow for 2010.
“My goal is to play every snap of offense this year,’ he says. “Never come off the field.”
In an effort to ease him into things without benefit of a training camp, the Bengals teamed Smith with starting right tackle
“Obviously,” he says, “we didn’t draft him that high (sixth) to be a situational player. We’ll see how it goes. The nice thing about February is you don’t have to line up yet.”
The nice thing about this February is that Smith is already here. Even if he’s in rehab. The Bengals treated the break conservatively but when it didn’t heal as expected, the decision was to put in the pin to complete the process.
It’s been about a year since Smith got ripped for leaving the NFL scouting combine in less than pristine condition and then took more heat a month later for being heavy during his pro day at Alabama.
Bengals strength coach Chip Morton is looking for things to be different. Smith is going to have more structure than he did before the draft but much of it will still be on his shoulders, he says.
“Based on where he was at the end of season, he’s got his work cut out for him,” Morton said. “We know he’s a talented player. We just have to help him physically get there with the foot and also get his conditioning in the right spot. The good news is that he’s here and it’s early and we’ve got a plan. He understands the situation better. When he’s got a plan and he’s got direction, he’s done well.”
Contrary to his image, once Smith gets in the building he isn’t some malcontent sulking in a recliner while everyone looks on. “Amiable and pleasant to work with,” is how Morton describes him.
This is the kind of nice kid Smith is:
Late last season he saw a guy he knew wearing a Red Sox hat slightly older than Smith’s 22 years. A week later, two days before Christmas in fact, Smith presented him with a new Red Sox hat. When he was admonished that young people should save their money, he waved him away and said, “Enjoy wearing it.”
Too nice? Too amiable?
“I change when I get on the field,” he says. “I’m a different guy.”
Morton and Alexander agree. Morton says Smithhas an edge to him that can be seen in his quickness and explosion.
“There’s no question the guy has talent,” Morton says. “I can see some of the wow factor when he does drills in the weight room. He does some special things. He can generate power as well as anybody. I think he’s got an edge when he needs to have an edge. He’s not a pushover. He’s pretty nasty when he needs to be.”
You can see some of that edge glinting in Smith's desire to get on the field in pass protection. Smith says he doesn’t feel like he was on the field many times when
“I think they were just trying to get my feet wet more or less,” Smith said. “But pass protecting is the thrill for an offensive lineman. It’s me vs. you.”
Smith felt like he was getting in a groove by the time the season ended (“I felt like I was on a hot streak," he says) and the stats look like it. In those last seven games (including the Wild Card loss), the Bengals averaged 4.5 yards per carry on the ground.
“The biggest adjustments were being disciplined in technique and the game plan,” Smith says. “In college, you’re always going to be more athletic than the guy across from you. But here, they’re just as athletic, if not more. It’s just a different mentality in the NFL. Everybody always has to improve their technique all the time. There’s no such thing as a perfect player.”
Smith found that out the tough way last season. No Yankees hat or Red Sox hat this spring.
It looks like a hard hat.