7-31-02, 3:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Justin Smith registered 8.5 NFL sacks before he ever slept a night here at Georgetown College thanks to last year's 51-day rookie holdout. Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner forgot Smith had never been here and gave the kid a map for the drive down here last week.
Since then, Smith's directions have been Mapquest simple: Block the new kid in town.
For football guys, when two athletes like Smith and rookie left tackle Levi Jones line up against each other stripped bare in a training camp drill, it's a treat.
So it's been a little bit of a candy bar, no traffic, a half-off sale, and Christmas morning all rolled into one for Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander and radio analyst Dave Lapham.
Smith, the draft's No. 4 pick in 2001 who broke the Bengals' rookie sack record and says he's shooting for double-digit sack seasons the rest of his career. Jones, the 10th pick in the draft this year who is supposed to be the team's best left tackle since Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz. The building blocks of the century's first decade.
Gentlemen, start your engines.
"He's got a motor that's non-stop," said Jones of Smith.
"Justin is a 100-percenter and so is Levi," Alexander said.
"It's like playing cornerback against Jerry Rice every day in practice," Lapham said. "You're going to get better. Playing tackle against Justin Smith is going to make you better and vice versa. And I think that kind of tempo is contagious down the line. It's encouraging not only for right now, but for the future."
Smith has had his way sometimes and Jones has had his during the one-on-one drills. Wednesday afternoon's practice was to be a big one for Jones because the man in which he is in a very real competition, 35-year-old Richmond Webb, got the day off because seven-time Pro Bowlers don't have to go every day of camp.
"Levi will be in there with the
first team and we'll see what happens," Alexander said. "The guy who gives us the best chance to win is the guy who is going to play. We don't play for a long time."
Smith continues to play with the same stoic abandon that marks his calendar-reliable work-out ethic. The same one that free-agent rookie offensive tackle Justin Bland saw when they were both at Missouri. The one that Smith brought into the offseason.
"We played teams like Nebraska and they weren't even close to what Justin was in practice," Bland said. "He's a little more cut now than he was in college. Maybe a little stronger and he's lost a little fat."
He couldn't afford to lose much. He's still at his collegiate 271 pounds, but when he says, "I'm just growing into it now," you're reminded the Bengals drafted him when he was 21 and he doesn't turn 23 until early in the regular season.
But what makes Smith go is on the inside.
"People who didn't know him said he would change, but I knew he wouldn't," Bland said. "When I showed up (for minicamp), it was the same holey clothes that he always just threw on. I don't think he's got any new clothes since he was at Missouri. Bland wasn't surprised when he went to his home.
"Nice house, but there's not much in it," Bland said. "A couch, A TV. A lamp. That's him."
Told Baltimore's Peter Boulware led the AFC this past year with 15 sacks, Smith shrugged and said he thought that was "a reasonable," number for him.
"But you don't know. You can't predict anything," Smith said. "The thinking around here is if you play hard every snap, something good is going to happen. That's all I try to think about."
Last year, Webb gave him some tips, but Smith thinks it's harder for tackles to tell ends what may be coming rather than the other way around. He's helped Jones this week, particularly on the bull rush. He advised Jones not to open up his hips so that the rusher doesn't have the advantage of zeroing in on Jones' chest.
"He's very fast, but he can bull rush with the best of them," Jones said. "I like the intensity. It's like that every play. It's going to make me better. It's all about reading. He says what he wants and moves on."
Such as when Smith was asked about his coaching: "Why not? He's wearing the same helmet, isn't he?"
Jones' athleticism has been a hit of the early camp. Particularly in the running game, where he flies into the linebacker level on counters and pitches.
"He's as athletic as I've seen," said Lapham, who played every line spot for the Bengals. "On counters and sweeps he just wooshes out there and moves with so much athleticism.
Alexander admits he's been walking around with a smile on his face because he has never really seen Jones flat-out whiff on a block at minicamp, voluntary camp and the first four days of training camp.
Then on Tuesday, the Bengals' defense didn't quite run a stunt the way it was planned and sent two guys through the gap between Jones and left guard Matt O'Dwyer. Jones was caught flat-footed. The first guy through was end Jevon Langford.
"Levi set out and the defensive tackle came between him and O'Dwyer," Alexander said. "Levi assumed Langford would rush outside, but Langford brought two guys in the same rush lane and Jevon beat him. The first lesson was in the National Football League when you think have predicted a move or scheme, that's not always true. No. 2, playing vs. Jevon, God knows what is going to happen."
It's a good lesson because anything can happen in the NFL and it usually does. Alexander thinks it's now just a process of Jones finding his pass-blocking style. In the Wednesday morning meetings, Alexander raised the possibility he might like what Hall-of-Famer Jackie Slater used to do.
"He had tremendously quick feet, like Levi has," Alexander said. "He scooted his feet. He took short steps rather than big kick steps. Who knows? He just has to find a style and he will."
Meanwhile, the football guys will have a treat watching Smith and Jones figure it out.