Smith draws first start

10-17-01, 2:15 P.M

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Oliver Gibson heard the coaches are priming rookie defensive end Justin Smith for his first NFL start Sunday against the Bears and he offered his 315-pound smile.

"If there's one kid on the field who'll be ready, it's him," Gibson said before Wednesday's practice. "His enthusiasm is refreshing. He's like a college kid. He'll say, 'Come on O.G., let's get 'em.' I'm thinking, 'OK, Justin. Just get to the quarterback.'"

Which is what he did Sunday against the Browns in one of the biggest plays of the Bengals' 24-14 victory. With Cincinnati leading, 21-7, early in the fourth quarter and Cleveland nearing the red zone, Smith dumped quarterback Tim Couch for a 12-yard loss for his second sack of the year. And he would have had another if left tackle Roman Oben didn't hold him.

"He had a big, big play against Cleveland for us and I think he's merited that," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau, who still plans to use Reinard Wilson at right end at times. "Reinard's playing good football. Together they give us quickness and aggressiveness and speed on the outside. We like that combination."

Smith took his promotion like everything else in his pro career, starting from the NFL

draft as the fourth pick in the country, to his 50-day holdout, to his first NFL sack in San Diego three weeks ago:

In stride.

"It's kind of the next step," Smith said. "I feel the way I was drafted, I have to earn it first, then go in and start, and make an impact. That 's my whole thing. Just coming in and helping them out making an impact. I'm not pleased with (his progress). I'm holding my own pretty good, but I expect a lot out of myself."

So do the Bengals, who agreed with Smith on a contract that escalates according to playing time and sacks. The club was Smith show up more often last Sunday than the Browns' No. 1 draft choice, defensive tackle Gerard Warren, the player picked ahead of Smith whom they also feel will be a top player.

What appears to be separating Smith is his speed around the edge, which seems to have softened the lack of a first training camp

"The speed of the game is a lot different than college," Smith said. "I was one of the fastest guys in college. Now it's like I'm in the right place. It's totally different.

"In college, you have one or two guys in a game like that," Smith said. "Now everybody moves like that. If you move like that, you'll be fine. But if you can't, then when you come into the (NFL), that's when you get crushed."

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