Smith edges to debut

9-10-01, 6:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Justin Smith won't kid you. He's worried about the fans' perception of him now that his contract stalemate with the Bengals is over.

Which is one of the reasons why he won't take a day off this week, a week that is looking more and more like the week he makes his NFL debut Sunday in Tennessee.

The Bengals opened a roster spot for him Monday when they released quarterback Scott Covington and head coach Dick LeBeau found himself saying at Monday's news conference, " I'd say that it would be a good chance of his being up."

But LeBeau and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie are going to hold off on saying anything definitive until they watch Smith practice this week for the first time in pads after his 51-day holdout engulfed all of training camp and pre-season games. While his teammates take Tuesday off, Smith meets with Krumrie twice for classroom work to get ready for Wednesday's first practice.

Smith, coming off an 11-sack season at Missouri in a year that included 24 tackles for loss, predicts the Bengals will suit him up for at last a handful of plays once they see him practice.

But he also acknowledged Monday that the way Reinard Wilson and Jevon Langford played at his right end spot in Sunday's 23-17 victory over the Patriots, the Bengals aren't in dire straits.

"I don't think it's that necessary," said Smith of jamming him into the lineup. "The D-line last week played great. There's not a rush for me to get in there. We've got a pretty good front line, so I'm just looking to contribute and get a win.

"I thought they looked good," said Smith of the play on the right edge. "Whenever

I get in the mix, too, it's going to make us that much better. If all three of us are playing great, then that helps the club that much more and I hope we all do."

But make no mistake. Smith is burning to play because he knows the just-a-good-old-country-boy honeymoon he had with the fans is over with the holdout he didn't envision on Draft Day.

"I didn't want to come off like that," Smith said. "All I can think about right now is that it's over. I'm in. Now I just have to win the respect back by playing great football. That's totally up to me and I expect it myself more than anybody else expects it, I'm sure of that."

Smith, who Saturday settled on a six-year, $17.25 million deal that only escalates when he gets at least 8.5 sacks each year, is saying all the right things.

He's positive. He's upbeat. He's glad to be here. He feels fortunate to be part of "a really fine football team." He's not going to buy a new truck because the one he got in exchange for some TV and radio spots back in Jefferson City is just fine. He's going to live in Cincinnati all year because living and training in the same place, "is the most important thing."

But urgency has hit him. He's not going to worry about buying his place with acres of land just yet. There's plenty of time for that. There is a career to jump start.

Remember that no Bengal has had 8.5 sacks since Gerald Dixon in 1997 and it's only been reached four times in the past 10 seasons.

"I know he's in shape, but training in a gym or a club is different than football shape," Krumrie said. "It's more intense, you get winded, your body takes a pounding. Plus, the classroom work has to translate to the field."

LeBeau knows Smith "is a work-out guy, we've all read about that. I think you take one look at him and you can see that he substantiates that with his appearance. That's not playing football, we have to get him on the practice field. If he looks like he can help us, then he will be up."

Smith knows what football shape is.

"Your neck and your body aren't used to getting whiplashed all the time by a 300-pound guy trying to take your head off," Smith said. "That's not hard getting into. It happens a couple of times, you're stiff for a couple of weeks and you play. When you warm up, you don't feel anything."

Smith did feel a jumble of emotions watching Sunday's game from the Paul Brown Stadium stands. It was just the third NFL game he had ever seen in person, the first outside the state of Missouri, and he thinks it's the first game he's ever watched anywhere that he was supposed to play in.

"It was tough," Smith said, "but I was more than excited when they won. It was great for the team. We just have to keep it rolling."

The wait is over Wednesday.

And maybe Sunday.

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