- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

Fred Smoot paraded around Redskin Park a couple weeks ago with a giant wooden stick in his right hand, trying to find any teammate willing to engage in boisterous conversation.

Washington’s loquacious cornerback didn’t find many takers. Either teammates were too smart to get into a war of words with the locker room’s most outspoken resident or they were simply afraid of being on the wrong end of another crushing hit like the one that earned Smoot the team’s first “hit stick” award of the year.

“Can you believe that one — Fred Smoot got the first big stick?” cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker said incredulously. “And believe me, he made sure everyone knew it.”

Teddy Roosevelt would not be proud. Smoot might carry a big stick, but he sure doesn’t speak softly.

Smoot has always had the ability to trash-talk with the best of them. Now in his fourth season with the Redskins, he finally might have the game to back it up.

“I’ve grown a lot,” he said. “I’m a complete player now. Point blank, I am.”

Close observers of the Redskins this year believe it. Where they used to see a slight, 174-pound speedster who concentrated solely on covering receivers, they now see a well-rounded, bulked-up cornerback who has placed an emphasis on tackling, playing zone coverages and even blitzing the quarterback.

Look up one moment and Smoot is stopping bull-nosed New York Giants running back Ron Dayne for a 1-yard gain. Look up the next and he’s bursting around the corner to smack Dallas Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testaverde just as he throws the ball away.

Those aren’t the kinds of plays Washington fans are used to seeing from Smoot, who spent the last three years in Champ Bailey’s shadow but now has teamed with veteran Shawn Springs to adequately fill the void left by Bailey’s trade to Denver.

“A lot of you said our corners never tackled around here before. They’re tackling pretty good right now,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “You know, Fred the last couple games has been one of our big-hit award guys. In the losses, too, he’s had some big hits.”

Smoot’s transformation, he said, has been several years in the making. The combination of Bailey’s trade, Williams’ pressure defense system and his own maturation as a player made him realize this summer it was time to take his game to a higher level.

“I always had the passion, I always had the love for it and I always had the talent to play,” he said. “But I’ve been missing all those little things over the years. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s something I think you grow into. You have to grasp the whole NFL game, and I think I’m there right now.”

By his own admission, Smoot never used to care much about defending the run or refining his tackling technique. He was drafted in the second round out of Mississippi State plain and simple because he had the skills to play man-to-man coverage. And with four-time Pro Bowl selection Bailey lining up on the other side, previous Redskins coaching staffs ran defenses that asked their two cornerbacks merely to cover receivers and not much else.

Williams came to town with a different philosophy: Everybody on defense has to be able to do everything on the field. And that meant Smoot had to work on becoming a more complete player.

“It’s not his fault that he wasn’t before,” Walker said. “It’s just that the systems he played in asked him to just cover those guys and let everyone else take care of the rest. In our system, we ask more out of our corners: play the run, play zone coverages, blitz the quarterback. I think this defense is really teaching him, as far as I’m concerned, to be an all-around corner.”

That means contributing not just on defense but special teams as well. Smoot certainly made his presence known there, drawing “oohs” from the crowd at FedEx Field three weeks ago with a vicious, crackback block during a punt return against Tampa Bay.

The crushing maneuver earned Smoot the Redskins’ “hit stick” award, handed out by special teams coach Danny Smith following each victory. With Washington carrying a two-game losing streak into tomorrow’s game at Cleveland, Smoot remains this season’s lone recipient of the colorfully decorated stick.

“It felt pretty good,” he said, his eyes still lighting up when asked about the hit that won him the award.

Smoot also comes to life when talking about his desire to remain with the Redskins for years to come. But that may be easier said than done. His contract is up after this season, and there have always been questions about the team’s desire to keep him. He was the subject of trade rumors in the past and entered this season knowing it could be his last in Washington.

Not that Smoot is worried about his future. As far as he’s concerned, if he continues to show Washington he can be a complete player in the NFL, he figures the team will jump at the chance to re-sign him to a long-term deal.

“It’s my talent that got me here, and it’s my talent that’s going to keep me here,” he said. “So I’m really not worried about it. Hopefully, I can be a Redskin for life.”

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