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Wednesday, November 26, 2008
With a Dorito on his shoulder, Smith is running wild


Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Now that he has the qualifications, it's time for Clifton Smith to reveal the secret of how to make it big in the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

 
 Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
 Tampa Bay Bucs return man Clifton Smith is slowly lifting the Dorito off his shoulder.

"You've just got to come in with a Dorito on your shoulder,'' Smith said Wednesday.

That's a different -- and very creative -- way of saying you need to have a chip on your shoulder. It's worked perfectly for the Tampa Bay return man, who wasn't even on the roster until Oct. 25, but suddenly has become one of the biggest rookie sensations in the league.

In just four games, Smith has made history and erased it. The Bucs long had one of the worst return games in the NFL. That suddenly has changed as Smith has become the first player in franchise history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.

His 70-yard punt return for a touchdown helped the Bucs take control of Sunday's game in Detroit. Smith already set a franchise record with a 97-yard kickoff return against Kansas City in Week 9. He's averaging 18.1 yards on punt returns and 30.3 yards on kickoff returns.

That's exactly the kind of explosive return man the Bucs were looking for back before this year's draft. But they weren't looking at Smith.

They used a second-round draft pick on Appalachian State receiver/return man Dexter Jackson and some people in the organization said he'd become the second coming of Carolina's Steve Smith. But Jackson struggled mightily in that role.

That's why the Bucs elevated Smith from the practice squad in October and threw him into the return role. The fact Smith was even on Tampa Bay's practice squad (on any practice squad, really) can be traced back to that big Dorito.

Back in college at Fresno State, Smith's career almost ended. Smith, also a running back, tore up his knee while trying to catch a pass in a 2005 game. Along with his ACL, Smith also tore his lateral collateral ligament and a hamstring tendon.

He couldn't walk for two months, couldn't run for a year and was out of football for almost two full years.

"My knee was swollen up so bad that it looked like I had two knees in one,'' Smith said. "I couldn't walk for about two months. The rehab was terrible. You wouldn't wish that upon anybody.''

Although Smith returned to rush for more than 600 yards in 2007, the knee injury and concerns about his size (5-foot-8 and 190 pounds) made him a forgotten man in the draft.

He wasn't even one of those free agents who gets calls from a bunch of teams the moment the draft ends.

"Nobody called the first two days,'' Smith said. "On the third day, I got the call from Tampa Bay. They were the first to call and I was like, "I'm not turning down anything. I'm just trying to make my dream come true''. As soon as I landed here in Tampa, the 49ers actually called and I was like, "Man, it's too late. I'm already here''.''

Despite Smith showing some promise in training camp and the preseason, the Bucs had a full stable of running backs and seemed committed to Jackson in the return game. They released Smith and brought him back to the practice squad.

You know the rest of the story from there. But Smith said it's too early to say he's made it after only four games. He doesn't even have a nameplate on his locker yet and that means the Dorito still can fit.

"It just means it's got to get even bigger,'' Smith said. "You've got to super-size it now. Now, you've got to show everybody what you're capable of doing.''