- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

In most parts north of the Mason-Dixon line, Fred Smoot's down-home drawl a Mississippi-fried mix of Baptist preacher and country twang would stand out like an Elvis cameo in "Gosford Park."

In the Washington Redskins' locker room, however, it's par for the course.

"They'll tell you I've got the countriest accent on the team," cornerback Smoot said with a laugh. "But it's between me, Rod [Gardner] and Stephen Davis."

Indeed, when it comes to syrupy Southern cadences, Smoot and Co. have plenty of, well, company. There's All-Pro corner Champ Bailey (Georgia). Pro Bowl teammate Chris Samuels (Auburn). First-round draft pick Patrick Ramsey (Tulane).

Not to mention a rookie "bawl" coach from Florida, Steve Spurrier, whose aw-shucks schtick is the verbal equivalent of seersucker.

Add it up, and the one-time Team of the South has taken on a distinctly Southern flavor making the Redskins a sure bet to win the Southeastern Conference West Division, if not the NFC East.

"There's a lot of Southern players on the team right now," Smoot said. "And I love it."

What's not to love? Less Dunkin' Donuts than Krispy Kreme, Washington's 84-man training-camp roster features 39 players from Southern universities, with six more from Texas schools.

The Redskins' first major off-season free-agent pickup, linebacker Jessie Armstead, attended Miami. Of the club's 10 picks in the NFL draft, half attended Southern colleges. So did Washington's three NFL Europe allocations.

And the Dixie connection isn't merely academic: Almost half of the Redskins' roster 38 players come from Southern hometowns.

"There seems to be quite a few of us around," said tight-ends coach Lawson Holland, a former two-sport athlete at Clemson and assistant coach at Florida. "A lot of us have been around each other over a good period of time, so we're familiar with each other."

Are they ever. Like Holland, a whopping 17 Redskins come from the powerful Southeastern Conference seven more than from the Big Ten, the conference with the next-highest number of players in a Washington uniform.

Among the notable SEC names: Bailey, Samuels, Smoot, Davis (Auburn) and potential starting quarterbacks Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel (both Florida).

"There are a lot of SEC guys on this team, so there's some familiar faces," said Wuerffel, a Heisman trophy winner with the Gators. "But I've been on a lot of teams that have a bunch of SEC players. There's just a lot of good players from that conference."

He's right: Forty-seven SEC players were taken in this year's draft, the largest contingent from any conference. Last season, a whopping 240 former SEC players were on opening-day NFL rosters.

"They play great football in the South," said defensive-line coach Ricky Hunley. "Those kids get to be active year round. You find that in recruiting Florida will have 200 or more Division I prospects every year. And that trickles up to the NFL. The numbers are in your favor."

Then there's the Spurrier factor. Apparently drawing inspiration from his oft-repeated mantra that "sunshine follows the Gators," the visored coach has done his best to turn Redskins Park into Gainesville North.

Since Spurrier's arrival in January, Washington has signed Florida products Matthews, Wuerffel, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green and Chris Doering. Seven assistant coaches have ties to the Gators, including Spurrier's son, Steve Jr.

And don't forget: Spurrier senior was a two-time All-American quarterback at Florida and a Heisman Trophy winner in 1966.

"Coaches have their preferences," Smoot said. "If you're a coach in Chicago, your big thing is to get players like [former Michigan stars] the A-Train [Anthony Thomas] and David Terrell, who are used to playing in the snow. So [Spurrier] is going to get himself some Southern players."

Upon their arrival in Washington, Southern players often are in for a culture shock starting with the migraine-inducing Beltway.

"The traffic is terrible," said Gardner, a native of Jacksonville, Fla. "The first time I jumped on 495 coming back from a game, it was the worst I've seen in my life. It took two hours for a 45-minute ride."

Next comes the weather. Asked during spring minicamp if he appreciated Washington's relatively mild winters, Smoot was nearly apoplectic.

"This is the North to me," he said. "I woke up this morning and it was about 50 degrees. I went to school down South. I wake up there and it's about 75."

A native of Jackson, Miss. average November high temperature: 69 degrees Smoot wasn't exactly thrilled with the chilly conditions during the Redskins' 17-10 victory at Denver last season.

"Last year, two places really hurt me: Denver and New York," he said. "That game in Denver, it rained and snowed. I got off the plane fine. I got back on throwing up."

Inside the Redskins' locker room, the North-South cultural divide makes for plenty of good-natured ribbing. According to Samuels, alma mater vs. alma mater trash talk is common and when conference and regional rivalries are involved, the smack flows fast and loose.

"Jon Jansen [who played at Michigan] and I are always into it," Samuels said. "We're always comparing Michigan and Alabama, the SEC and the Big Ten things like that. I say that now that we've got all these boys from the South and the SEC up here, we'll make the playoffs."

For his part, Jansen faces an equally daunting task: wading through his teammates' countrified accents. The toughest drawl to decipher?

"You've gotta go with Smoot," Jansen said. "Without a doubt. There's no conversation there. He's a good guy, but he's got the heaviest accent."

Even Gardner whose molasses-thick drawl seemingly belongs on a stack of hot cakes concurs. But given the down-home state of the Redskins, Smoot isn't worried.

"People like LaVar [Arrington], somebody from the North, will be like, 'Whatcha saying?'" he said. "They try to rag on us."

Smoot chuckled.

"But we all understand each other," he said.

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