S Dwight Smith took his play-making moves from skilled opponents during his high school days
The NFL Draft, held each year over a long weekend in April, is the culmination of months of hype and endless hours of intense scouting.
The players selected in the first two rounds get the most ink, but success in the later rounds is key to a team's fortunes down the road. Third-round picks can be every bit as important to a team as the first and second-rounders, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have uncovered a string of third-round gems in recent years. Among the Bucs from that round who made significant contributions to the team's Super Bowl victory in 2002 were Martin Gramatica, Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Nate Webster and Dwight Smith.
Especially Dwight Smith. His performance against Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII stood out like a red Buccaneer jersey in the Black Hole.
Smith's two interceptions for touchdowns off of Raider quarterback Rich Gannon put an exclamation point on the team's dominating, 48-21 victory. That was two years ago, though. Since then, Smith has moved from cornerback to safety and the Raiders have replaced their West Coast Offense with Head Coach Norv Turner's vertical passing attack. Both Smith and Gannon seem comfortable in their new roles, and they will meet once again on Sunday night.
One thing is certain – Gannon and the new Oakland offense will test the maturity of Smith at his new position.
"I need to be more disciplined," said Smith. "When I played corner I basically moved off of the quarterback's first reaction. At safety, it's more of letting the play come to you. (Gannon) is a guy who likes to look off defenders and come back to his receivers. Discipline is going to be number one for me."
Former Buccaneer safety Dexter Jackson's play against Gannon earned him Super Bowl MVP honors. His success in that game was due in large part to the discipline of which Smith speaks, particularly with respect to Gannon's pump fakes. Smith hopes to duplicate that success tonight.
"Pump fakes are a huge part of [Gannon's] game," said Smith. "He likes to pump you off and look you off to try and get you out of position. Being disciplined with my eyes is going to help me."
Smith's game begs for discipline because it is already very strong in other ways. The Buccaneers originally drafted him with the hope that he would fill a variety of roles – kick/punt returner, special teams ace and cornerback. Smith was touted as a "ball hawk" when he was drafted out of Akron, but he has proven to be much more than that. He is a big-play maker whose versatility in the secondary has added another dimension to the already imposing Buccaneer defense.
"I feel like I'm a special athlete," said Smith. "I don't feel like there are too many guys who can do what I do – cover a receiver one on one play, then get in the box and mix it up as a safety. A lot of guys did it later on in their careers, but they might not be able to play corner. I feel like I can go back out on that island and play corner if I had to. I showed that last year."
Smith converted to safety in the offseason following that Super Bowl, after Jackson left for Arizona as a free agent. The Bucs wanted very much to get Smith on the field for as many snaps as possible, but had no intention of benching corners Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. It was a good plan, but injuries to Kelly, John Lynch, Tim Wansley and John Howell put Smith constantly on the move. He played every position in the secondary at some point and started all over the field.
"There's not a thing on the field that I feel coach can't ask me to do," he continued. "If it's returning kicks, playing receiver or playing running back – whatever it is I'll do it. That's why I feel special. I don't feel that every player in the NFL can do that."
Many NFL players try to model their games after a boyhood role model, but Smith has always had his own way of doing things. Instead of emulating those players he saw on television, Smith assimilated different facets of the game from those he played with as he grew up. This might explain how he acquired the versatility that makes him such a valuable commodity.
"Nobody would know the guys who my playing style is modeled after," said Smith. "There were guys when I played in PAL league that played on older teams that I looked up to. There were guys in high school that I added a little bit of their game to mine."
Smith's confidence in his abilities can easily be mistaken for cockiness, and perhaps not mistakenly so. It suits his game. Playing the safety position, one must have confidence in one's ability to make quick reads and even quicker decisions. Smith's confidence has grown each year, to the point where he is certain he will make a significant impact at safety this season.
Smith has developed into a key player for the Buccaneers over his four season, making the Buccaneers feel fortunate that they got him in that quietly important third round. For now, Smith is going to keep doing things both on and off the field the only way he knows how.
"On the field I'm a wild ride - you might see me in arguments with other teams and stuff like that," said Smith. "Off the field, I'm more of a calm person. I don't get into too much – I'm pretty laid back."