Akili trying to escape recent past

7-26-01, 3:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Akili Smith is probably going to be the third quarterback here in Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage. But he doesn't think that's the message in a bottle and coach Dick LeBeau says none is intended.

"I really don't want to talk about the scrimmage because I'm looking at Aug. 4," Smith said after Thursday morning's practice. "I'm focused on the pre-season games. I want to go out there and just be 50 percent in the scrimmage and not make any mental mistakes at all. If I'm one, two, or three, it doesn't matter. I just want to get an opportunity."

But there's still a side of Smith that wonders if the Bengals ever really gave him an opportunity as fair as the snaps he has shared with Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell when they anointed him the savior of the Lost Decade. The third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft has gone from savior to sitter in 15 starts.

"I'm torn between the two," Smith admitted. "The smart ones who look at my career with the Bengals will see where I've come from and I wonder why they're giving up on me. But yet I see the organization's side, too."

Here's how Smith sees it after last season, when he started his first full year with five rookie and second-year receivers with 15 NFL catches on Opening Day and then endured the shaky play of left tackle Rod Jones that led to many of Smith's 14 fumbles.

"I missed my first 27 practices because of the holdout," said Smith of his rookie year. "Then I played seven games and hurt (his big toe). Last year I didn't do well at all with the receivers and Rod and all that and me

playing poorly. Then it's, 'We've got to get a quarterback.' Why give up on me already?

"But I can see where the organization is coming from," Smith said. "They want to win and take some of the heat off the organization right now with the pressure on Mike (Brown) and all that stuff. I'm kind of looking at it from both ways and trying to cope with it."

There are always two sides. There are those in the organization who wish Smith was a bit more mature at times when it has come time to study and handling himself, but they were also pleased he spent so much time with new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski during the offseason.

Conventional wisdom has Kitna and Mitchell looking more decisive against blitzes and more accurate as far as completion percentage. But Smith is showing enough flashes to keep them interested.

The internal knock on Smith is once 7-on-7 turns into 11-on-11, he starts to hold the ball too long and can't look off receivers.

"I'm not quite comfortable there, yet," Smith said. "I've got my pass protections down and that was my point of emphasis. Now it's time for me to put the whole route concept together. It will be easier come Aug. 4."

Kitna and Mitchell seem to be ahead of Smith, but it's hard to get a read on how close Smith is to them. Some say close. And there is a school of thought that thinks Smith is responding to the coaching of his college offense.

"I think Akili is looking pretty good," said one veteran offensive player. "He's still doing things like holding on to the ball too long. But if you keep him in this system for another year, he'd be real good."

LeBeau has no comment about what transpired during Smith's first two seasons ("I don't know. I was the defensive coordinator,"), but thinks it should serve as motivation.

"It should make him want to be as good as he can get," LeBeau said. "He still has a future. He doesn't have a six-month deadline. The onus is on him to get as good as he can get."

Smith has said he wants to separate himself from Kitna and Mitchell with his running ability, and LeBeau has noticed.

"I see improvement there," said LeBeau of Smith's penchant for holding the ball. "I see him being more decisive when it comes to put the ball down and go.

"I went back and looked at the tapes of him at Oregon and he actually ran the option well at times. That's what a great athlete he is. He escapes as well as most of the current mobile NFL quarterbacks."

But Smith probably won't have all four pre-season games to run into the Bengals' heart. LeBeau indicated Thursday a call will have to be made at some point next month.

"I have to be a bit vague on that because I want to give these three guys an opportunity," LeBeau said. "But realistically speaking, there has to be a point in the pre-season where you designate this guy to be the starter so he can get the bulk of the snaps."

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