Akili: It's make or break

3-09-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

No one has to tell Akili Smith what is at stake when he arrives at Paul Brown Stadium Monday morning.

"This is it," Smith said Friday from San Diego. "This is the pivotal year for me. I guess you could say it is make or break. I'm anxious to get it going again."

Smith gets it going Monday at 10 a.m., in his first meeting with new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. He expects to be joined by fellow receivers Peter Warrick, LaVell Boyd, and Chad Plummer. Ron Dugans, Craig Yeast and Damon Griffin are expected later in the week. Darnay Scott and Danny Farmer should be here when the off-season program starts April 2.

And if it is 50 or 60 degrees, Smith plans to be on the field throwing.

"I want everyone from (Bengals President) Mike Brown to (head coach) Dick LeBeau to Bob Bratkowski to see me out there working. It's a new year," Smith said.

He already likes one of Bratkowski's changes. The Bengals are going to "the passing tree," a system which identifies pass routes by numbers Smith had at the University of Oregon.

But he knows he arrives in Cincinnati with more than questions about a new playbook.

It's his first trip back since the Bengals actively recruited every veteran free-agent quarterback but Virgil Carter and since his Feb. 8 arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence.

He has pleaded not guilty and says more will come out about the case at the March 29 trial readiness hearing.

"Everybody is saying a lot of things," Smith said, "but I think people will look at it a little bit differently when the truth comes out."

And Monday is less than a week after the Bengals signed former Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna to set up Dick LeBeau's open quarterback competition at training camp.

LeBeau won't make a clear-cut starter designation, but Kitna comes in with some edges. He knows Bratkowski's system, he's 18-15 as a starter, and has thrown 49 career touchdown passes. Smith is 3-15 as a starter, has thrown three touchdown passes in his last 378 throws, and he's learning a new system.

But Smith knows the Bengals could have signed Elvis Grbac and buried him. They ran at Grbac hard, but also backed out when the number was not only too high, but when it became clear the deal would vaporize Smith's career in Cincinnati.

"I'm glad to hear it. I feel good about that because I think there is some support for me still there," Smith said. "I'm not going to worry about who's there. I have to focus

on myself. I'm going to worry about what I have to do."

Kitna, 28, about three years older than Smith, has already said he wants to get to know Smith off the field. Smith, acknowledging the seven-year gap between him and Scott Mitchell last year, would like to do the same.

"I've heard he's a good guy. We had a nice little conversation up there before the game," said Smith of Seattle's 37-20 win over the Bengals in '99 at the Kingdome. "What I'm hoping we can do is learn from each other and grow together."

All Smith would say about the arrest is that he doesn't have, "a problem."

"It's been real tough," Smith said. "But I can't talk about it now. At some point, I probably will talk publicly about it, but it can't happen yet. When people hear the truth, they might understand a little bit about what really happened."

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