'Rookie' Smith copes

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith is finally dealing with it. This business about being a franchise quarterback is hard.

Harder than he thought.

"It's starting to sink in that I'm a rookie," said Smith as he prepared for his ninth NFL start Sunday against the Titans.

"I finally figured out I'm a rookie," Smith said. "I've finally accepted that and before I didn't want to hear any of it. As badly as I didn't want to accept it, and I tried so hard to fight it, I have. It's going to take time, but I know I can do it."

Smith gave enough clues when he hit eight of his first nine passes against the Dolphins last week. He thought that this might be it, this finally might be the breakthrough game he's aching for.

"I need a breakout game. I would love a 300-yard (passing game). Just real efficient. A Kurt Warner-type game basically," Smith said. "But last week I hit a few speed bumps in the second half. I've got to be more consistent. I've got to hit that wide open pass."

Ken Anderson, Smith's offensive coordinator, just happens to be a former Pro Bowl quarterback. He knows his pupil wants some big numbers. But. . .

"Did Tim Couch have a big game last year? Did Donovan McNabb have a big game?" Anderson asked, referring to the two quarterbacks picked before him in the 1999 Draft. "They were rookies. He's a rookie."

Anderson knows. Like Smith did last year, he started four games his rookie season in 1971. Anderson completed 72 of 131 for 777 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. In '99, Smith was 80 of 153 for 805 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions. Smith's numbers haven't been much better this season. He's spent all season next to last in AFC passing ahead of only the hopeless Ryan Leaf by hitting just 44 percent of his passes for two TD passes and four interceptions.

But Anderson didn't have that breakout year in '72, either, with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions despite 301 passes.

"I think Bill Walsh told me that by my third year I could run the offense," said Anderson of his old Bengals' offensive guru. "And I could carry the offense by my fifth year."

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That timetable might disturb Smith, but Anderson had more experience around him at receiver in his first two seasons with veterans Chip Myers and Speedy Thomas.

Smith has rookies Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans and no one named, "Speedy." Smith is still smarting from the loss of the one guy who could give him a big play down the field.

"Another big fact in my head is the loss of Darnay (Scott)," said Smith of the quicksilver receiver's broken leg. "That's big.

"Darnay would always come to the line of scrimmage and always point at the safeties," Smith said. "We've got certain things we do on certain blitzes and I think (Dugans and Warrick) know what to do, but they need to reassure me that they do know and we can be pointing together. I need to talk to those dudes about that."

Smith realizes he needs time to get on the same with the rookies. On everything. Just take those blitzes for an example.

"That's what teams are doing," Smith said. "Rookie quarterback, rookie receivers. When (the receivers) have a depth of 16 yards and they have to break it off to 14 because of a blitz, they are eventually going to know how to do that. It's going to become second nature."

For Smith, what's so hard is transferring film work and practice into a game.

"The hardest thing is being comfortable out there," Smith said. "Looking at what you see on film and trusting that is what you see out there during the game. It's making a decision and getting rid of it. It will come. It's going to click in one day. I'm just waiting for when."

But he knows Sundays are so much different than the Fridays and Saturdays at Lincoln High, Grossmont Junior and Oregon, where he hit the jackpot all in his second season.

"It's different now," Smith said. "I can see now that I'm playing against grown men every week. In college, everyone was just a college kid. A lot of them were there to get an education and move on. Here, it's grown men who have been in the league eight, nine, 10 years."

But Smith knows he's really only working on Year 1.

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