Rookie RB Clifton Smith got at least 14 yards on each of his five punt returns against Dallas on Saturday
Clifton Smith noticed one thing right away when he fielded his first regular-season NFL punt in Texas Stadium and started upfield against the onrushing tide of Dallas Cowboys.
"Those are grown men coming at you," said Smith with a laugh. "It's not a bunch of kids like you get in college."
Smith eluded enough of those grown men to get 20 yards on the runback, which was more than just a nice round number for his first official return. It happened to be, by one yard, the longest punt return of the year for the Buccaneers, which was significant considering he had just been handed that job to try to do away with the Bucs' deficiencies in that department.
Smith later added four more returns, two for 17 yards each and two for 14 yards each. Considering the Bucs had all of three punt returns of 14 or more yards through the first seven games and Smith had that many before the first quarter was up in Dallas, it's safe to say he made his mark. It may not have been the greatest debut by a punt returner in team history – Jacquez Green had a team-record 95-yard runback for a touchdown in Green Bay in his first NFL game in 1988 – but it was quite fantastic in its own right.
And it opened some eyes.
"I thought he was decisive," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I thought he caught the ball well. I thought he was north and south. To go in there and return punts and kicks and contribute a little bit from scrimmage, that's just another guy on the football team who stepped up."
Smith had a 16.4-yard punt return average at the end of the day, and his 82 total yards was the Bucs' highest single-game total of the year by more than 50 yards. If he had enough returns to qualify – and obviously five runbacks is an extremely small sample size – he would rank second in the NFL in average to the Saints' sublime Reggie Bush (21.9-yard average on 13 returns). It might be unfair to expect Smith to keep up a 16-yard average – there are inevitably average-killing plays where there is simply no room to run – but his habit of fielding the ball and zooming directly upfield bodes well for the continued accumulation of yards.
And there's always the possibility of an even bigger statistical day. Smith once had a day against those college "kids" that makes one believe anything is possible. As a Fresno State sophomore in 2005, he returned three punts for 189 yards and two touchdowns against Weber State.
That kind of performance, as well as his 998 yards from scrimmage last year, helped the 5-8, 190-pound Smith get a call from the Buccaneers after the draft last spring. His outstanding work in training camp and preseason games earned him a spot on the practice squad and on the short list of potential options for the Bucs if their return game faltered in the regular season. When, in fact, fellow rookie Dexter Jackson had his ups and downs as the primary returner in the first half, Smith got his shot. Finally.
"It's always tough to be patient, but that's just the name of the game," said Smith. "You have to be patient. They always tell me it's a long season and something is bound to happen. There are a lot of injuries in this game and before you know it, it will be on you to go out there and just take care of your opportunities."
It would seem likely that Smith will get another shot to build on his eye-opening debut. He may even be given more to do. He was also the team's kickoff return man against the Cowboys – three runbacks for 62 yards – and he was in on a handful of offensive snaps. On his first play from scrimmage, Smith lined up wide to Jeff Garcia's left and ran a comeback route that got the team 13 yards.
It wasn't a perfect debut, though. Smith fumbled on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, giving the Cowboys possession in Buccaneer territory and killing the offense's chance to start the second half with some momentum. Smith said he was guilty of carrying the ball too low on that return, a problem he can and will fix. He wasn't a fumbler at Fresno State and he's determined not to gain that reputation at the NFL level, because that would quickly undermine all the 15 and 20-yard punt returns he could muster.
"I felt like I opened some eyes again," said Smith. "But I'll always have the big question mark above my head saying that he might be a fumbler, which is a stigma I don't want put on me at all. It's not my game to put the ball on the ground."
Said Gruden: "Obviously, the fumble to start the second half, you don't want that. It cost us a possession and changed the momentum a little bit, especially after they had scored. It's a credit to our defense for getting off the field there. I think he's a good football player. We've just got to take care of the ball."
Smith is fully aware of the importance of the job he's been given a shot at. He knows that every yard is precious in the NFL, so every return is potentially game-changing. He said he often thinks of Super Bowl XXXIV, when St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackled Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson a yard short of the goal line on the last play of the game to preserve a 23-16 Rams victory.
"Back in college, if it was a short kick, I would let it bounce just so it might get to me," said Smith. "But up here, I can't take away any yards from the offense. I have to run up and fair catch a ball if I have to just to save the yardage for the offense. It's a game of inches."