S Dwight Smith has been up to the task of covering some of the league's best tight ends
There could be a couple confusing moments in Sunday's game for San Diego Chargers receiver Eric Parker.
We're not saying the third-year player will be flummoxed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coverage schemes (though that would be nice, huh?). In fact, we're not even saying Parker will be confused by anything that happens during the action.
But if he's trying to get back to the huddle after the end of a play and he suddenly has Bucs safety Dwight Smith talking a line of trash in his ear, Parker may find himself thinking, "Wait a minute…what did I do?"
It might not even be Parker that Smith chooses to chat up at a seemingly random moment. It could be tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, or receiver Bobby Shaw, or even former Buc teammate Keenan McCardell.
It just won't be Antonio Gates.
See, Smith and Gates were childhood friends and high school teammates, and they remain very tight. While Smith will not hesitate to do his duty and lay Gates out with a hard hit should the opportunity arise, he just won't be able to bring himself to trash-talk his good friend. That's when an innocent party could figure into the picture.
"Now that's the thing that won't be the same," admits Smith, who rarely hesitates to let his feelings be known on the field. "The trash-talking…I might have to make a play on him and go talk to somebody else."
As for the hitting: "Once you get into it, it's business. Once you get in between the lines, he's trying to feed his family and I'm trying to feed mine. The only difference is, I might help him up a lot. But as in hitting him down, there's nothing that will change about that."
Smith and Gates played together on a variety of teams growing up in Detroit. The two helped take Central High to the state basketball championship game during Smith's senior season. But they took very different paths to this first-ever meeting between them on the gridiron.
Smith, who played running back and cornerback at Central, went to Akron to play football and was eventually drafted by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 2001 draft. In 2003, he moved to safety, where one of his frequent concerns is stopping the opposing team's tight end.
Gates, who played tight end and defensive end at Central, was a first-team all-state choice in both football and basketball. He wanted to play both sports in college but ended up transferring several times before landing at Kent State, where he played basketball exclusively and helped the Golden Flashes reached the Elite Eight. He managed to get a tryout in San Diego and just two seasons later is the leading pass-catcher among all NFL tight ends.
Now, Smith and Gates meet head-on for the first time, and that adjective could end up being very literal. Smith is one of the hardest hitters on a Buccaneer defense long known for that very thing, and Gates catches such a high percentage of the Drew Brees's passes that he is almost certain to be finding his way through the Bucs' secondary at some point. An eventual meeting of the pads should be alright with both men, since they've always been the competitive type of friends, but it will still seem a bit unusual.
"We competed at everything, man," said Smith. "The thing about it is, this is going to be the first time I've had to play against him. We were always were on the same teams. We went to the state championship in basketball my senior year. We've always played together so it will be different playing against him."
It will be a significant challenge for both. In a season in which the Bucs have seemingly faced a murderer's row of productive tight ends – most recently, Tony Gonzalez, Eric Johnson and Alge Crumpler twice – Gates may be at the top of the list.
At the moment, the San Diego tight end is fourth in the NFL among all players with 72 receptions, on which he has gained 826 yards and 11 touchdowns. Smith, however, has come up huge in the last two clashes with big-name tight ends, helping the Bucs hold San Francisco's Johnson to one catch for nine yards and Atlanta's Crumpler to one catch for five yards this past Sunday.
After Crumpler and Gonzalez put up big numbers against the Bucs in back-to-back games in early November, Smith made it known that he wanted more direct responsibility in shutting down tight ends. After the near shutouts against Johnson and Crumpler, Smith gets an even bigger test in Gates. The only difference this time is, he would wish big things for this week's foe in any other game.
"It will be fun because of the type of season that he's having," said Smith of Gates. "I'm proud of him. I know a lot of people doubted him, and this is big for him. It will pose a challenge for me. It will also help me as in showing what I can do."