- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Washington Redskins receiver Rod Gardner won't wait until September to prove himself. The first-rounder plans to silence second-round cornerback Fred Smoot on Friday when the three-day minicamp begins.

It seems Gardner, out of Clemson, didn't catch a ball when he faced Smoot, out of Mississippi State, in 1999. At least that's how the flamboyant Smoot put it. Gardner said it was more like a collective zone defense instead of one man that stopped him.

"Fred talks on the field, off the field. He always has something to say," Gardner said. "Once he starts talking trash [in minicamp], I'm not going to say anything. I'm gone. We'll talk afterwards."

The Redskins' top two picks will compete for attention, but Gardner earned the loftier first-round status after Smoot was tainted by a drug possession charge that was later dropped. Yesterday, Gardner drew comparisons to childhood idol Jerry Rice after arriving at Redskin Park.

Gardner isn't the fastest receiver, and he doesn't always get off the line quickly. However, the same was said early about the former San Francisco receiver, who went on to become the NFL's career receptions leader.

"Let's not put the Jerry Rice mantle on Rod at this point, but as a matter of comparison that was what was said about Jerry Rice when he came out," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "You begin with the understanding of the thing that set Jerry Rice apart a competitive spirit and an endless, positive work ethic that he was going to be everyday the best player he could be."

Gardner admitted he hated to lose in hide-and-seek and kickball as a child. It's that fiery spirit that seems to be a trademark of Schottenheimer's roster: guys who take losing personally, who are more worried about success than stats. Gardner fits the system.

"I'm coming to work hard. I'm going to help achieve my goals, and that's to help win football games," he said. "If they need me to be a blocker, special teams, whatever, a starter or a substitute and learn the offense, I'll get myself ready. I'm a team player. If they want to run the ball all game, I'll block."

Well, not too many blocks. Gardner should start opposite receiver Michael Westbrook and stretch defenses despite a lack of breakaway speed. Gardner has been working daily with a track coach to increase his speed, but the Redskins think his 6-foot-4, 217-pound frame should let Gardner muscle away passes in close coverage. To Schottenheimer, that's more important than some fast 40-yard time on the track.

"He gives every evidence of being a tremendous, tremendous competitor," Schottenheimer said. "When the ball's in the air, it belongs to Rod Gardner in his mind. You talk about the physical skills, but ultimately I think competitive spirit is the thing that enables everybody to go several notches up."

And if Gardner plays a physical game much like former Redskins receiver Albert Connell, that's fine with Schottenheimer.

"They don't call many penalties on offensive pass interference anyway," he said.

Westbrook enters the final season of his seven-year deal, and Gardner could succeed the 1995 first-round pick as the downfield big body. Indeed, Schottenheimer expressed some concern over Westbrook's timetable for returning from last year's knee injury.

"First of all, we have to make sure Michael's back in the lineup with the knee," he said. "That's still a point of some concern, but he's been working very, very hard, and all indications are he's going to be fine."

For now, Gardner is embracing some spoils of his first-round selection. He's driving a 2002 Cadillac and plans to buy his mother a house outside Jacksonville, Fla.

"As long as she's taken care of, I'm happy," Gardner said.

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