BY GEOFF HOBSON
The first session of Camp Akili ended today and everyone from the head counselor to the kitchen crew saluted quarterback Akili Smith's progress in the seven workouts since minicamp.
Oh, there are still some things that need to be worked on by the time voluntary camp re-convenes in about 30 days. He's got to get rid of the ball quicker on some routes. And he's struggling to consistently find a good touch and get some air underneath his long ball. But they're breathing a little easier at Spinney Field these days. And that's hard to do when it comes to gritty Spinney and unproven franchise quarterbacks:
"He's a lot farther along than he was last year, that's for sure," said Bengals President Mike Brown of a near useless rookie season. "Until he brings us in as winners, he still has something to prove, but I think he's done everything we could have expected of him."
"He's doing real well. We're pleased," said head coach Bruce Coslet. "I see improvement. I don't expect him to be a 10-year veteran after two weeks, but you can tell his work in the offseason is starting to pay off."
"He's headed the right way," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "When he needs to put it there, he puts it there. The best thing he did for himself and the team was staying up here and getting comfortable with the mental aspects of the plays and he did."
"The way he throws the 15- to 25-yard patterns makes him special," said scout Duke Tobin.
That's about the most accurate day of throwing we've had around here in 10 years," said one long-time Bengals front office employee after a workout last week.
As for the man himself, Smith walked off the field today acknowledging he soothed some of his own inner fears during the past two weeks.
"I'm real pleased with my progress. I was pretty sharp, but I'm still not happy where I'm at," Smith said. "We've got a team looking for leadership and I have to be accountable on and off the field."
Smith threw a lot of darts in the intermediate range of 15 to 20 yards the past two weeks, but he aimed his best and most telling shot at his wide receivers. Flexing his leadership muscles, Smith made it clear he wasn't thrilled only two of his receivers James Hundon and Damon Griffin were here for this week's last three voluntary workouts. And that he's looking forward to rookie wideouts Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans arriving this coming Tuesday.
"We had a great camp. Everybody worked hard. I see that people are really tired of losing," Smith said. "It's like Bruce told us today. If we can just raise the work ethic about two more notches. Just raise it a little bit more and we'll be ready come July."
There still are the subtle and not-so-subtle reminders, but very rarely did Coslet scream, "Quicker, quicker, quicker, Akili," like he did most of last year in a plea for Smith to go through his progressions and get rid of the ball.
"Good job today," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander in a not-so-subtle reminder Wednesday. "The faster you get rid of it, the longer I'll have a job."
Smith is listening. One of the things he has learned from watching film with offensive coordinator Ken Anderson is of the 49 times Cincinnati quarterbacks got sacked last season, "25 plus were (the quarterback's responsibility). If I can get rid of the ball and not put us in 2nd-and-14 and 2nd-and-15, it's going to give us a better chance to convert."
But Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel, knows there's a fine line between hurrying a throw (bad) and reading out your progression (good). Last year's tapes are showing Smith why some believe Blake hurried throws.
"I think the more we bring it up about getting rid of the ball, he may start to hurry," Lippincott said. "You want him to read it out. People were critical of Jeff. He wouldn't read it out. Akili's doing that because he's seen it on tape that people get open nearly every play. That was a big lesson for him."
Smith didn't like the way he played in the minicamp a few weeks ago, but that was the first time he dropped back to pass since he injured his toe on Halloween and as Coslet said of the rookie receivers, "(Smith) was seeing routes that had never been run here and aren't in the playbook."
But Tobin was encouraged that weekend because one of those practices was windy and wild and, "it didn't affect his intermediate ball at all. He throws such a tight spiral with a lot of revolutions, the wind didn't hurt him like it would with a lot of guys. And I'm not saying he throws a bad long ball. He just has to find a touch. Blake spoiled the people around here because what he can do with the long ball is rare."
Smith will take the weekend off and then it's time to get something going with Warrick and Dugans. Ken Anderson, of course, will be back upstairs in the film room. Waiting.
"It's only a step," Anderson said. "But a step in the right direction."