Rookie CB Dwight Smith had an eye-opening preseason but hurt his foot in the last game of August
Tampa Bay's exceptional starting cornerbacks, Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber, share a common NFL origin. Both entered the league as third-round draft picks of the Buccaneers, Abraham in 1996 and Barber in '97.
This past spring, the Bucs spent another third-round pick on a cornerback, one that, like Abraham of East Tennessee State, came from a small school. Buc scholars couldn't help hoping that the team would once again strike third-round gold with Akron's Dwight Smith.
And, sure enough, Smith was the real deal, right from his first set of practices. Throughout the summer and into training camp, the rookie corner performed extremely well in practice, both on special teams and in the secondary. Even with Abraham and Barber entrenched as starters and former second-round pick Brian Kelly as strong as ever at the nickel back spot, the immediate future for Smith seemed bright and busy.
Then, on the eve of the regular season, a detour. In the preseason finale at Atlanta on August 31, Smith suffered a mid-foot sprain, a difficult injury for a cornerback who must constantly backpedal and pivot. As it turned out, thanks in part to one bye week and one unexpected off week, that mishap kept Smith out of game action for almost exactly a month.
Obviously, Smith's temporary layoff did nothing to change the high opinions of Buc coaches. Still, as the focus shifted to those who were suiting up for the season opener in Dallas, the heavy buzz around Smith took a back seat. Smith's focus in recent weeks has shifted to rehabilitation and regaining the edge he had honed in camp.
"You can never just jump right back in, but I think I took the right route to get back to where I was before the injury," he said. "I was upset, because I felt like I had worked myself into good shape and a good position. I feel like I'm almost back to where I was. We'll find out Sunday if I am."
That's right - about a month late, the smash hit of training camp is set to play in his first game that counts, as the Bucs head up to Minnesota for a Sunday contest in the Metrodome.
"I haven't had a taste of the regular season in the NFL yet," said an eager Smith. "This is my first taste, so I'm really anxious. I just don't want to get over-anxious and put a lot of pressure on myself. I just want to get out there and do what I do. Hopefully, I get a chance to make a play. If the opportunity presents itself, I'll make the play."
Smith will play. He has been practicing for over a week, is completely cleared from a medical standpoint and is unlikely to be named an inactive thanks to his clear special teams prowess. Smith also knows that, even in his first game, not much stands between him and a more prominent role in the Bucs' top-rated defense.
"I'll be playing a lot of special teams, and I'm the fourth corner," he said. "We play a lot of three-corner stuff around here, so if any of the guys get hurt, I'll have to play a lot of snaps. I'll just be ready, man – if I'm called on, I'll be there."
That's good, because Smith's NFL debut is no regular game. Waiting on the other side of the line of scrimmage are two of the league's most dangerous receivers, Cris Carter and Randy Moss. If Smith gets any playing time on the defense this weekend, there will be no routine snaps for the rookie, given the competition.
"The thing about it, when the time comes, it doesn't feel any different," he claimed. "Leading up to it, you'll be thinking about it a lot, but when it's time to get out there and play, it's no different than any other game."
In fact, Smith has faced Moss before, having helped his Akron team take on Moss' Marshall squad during Smith's freshman season. Smith was not yet a starter in that first collegiate season, but he did play extensively on defense and does not have fond memories of that afternoon or Moss' abilities.
"We lost," said Smith. "He did it. He's a big-play receiver. You see teams finding schemes to stop him now, but you can never say he's completely out of a game because he takes too much attention."
Even if Smith doesn't take a snap on defense this Sunday, he'll have an important role on special teams, an area that was somewhat lacking during the season opener in Dallas. Given the close nature of the Bucs' recent trips to Minneapolis, any one play or any one player could end up making the difference.
Smith isn't worried about beginning his NFL career in such an important game.
"I've been in enough big games and so on to calm myself down," he said. "I know the things I have to do to prepare myself. The night before, I might miss a little sleep, but when it's time to play, I'll be ready."