CFLs' Smith is learning on the job at cornerback

October 01, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

One moment, Irvin Smith had a bead on the ball, and his fourth interception in sight, as he matched Stephen Jones stride for stride down the sideline.

The next moment, Smith, a cornerback for the Baltimore CFLs, inexplicably broke stride and stumbled, then watched Jones pull down a deep pass that went for a 42-yard gain for the Ottawa Rough Riders.

It was the beginning of another chapter in the Canadian Football League education of Smith, local hero from Maryland.

"He was pushing," Smith said of Jones' big catch last Sunday. "That was it in a nutshell. I had him covered."

There was no penalty on what would become a recurring theme. Even though Baltimore won, 42-27, Jones caught eight passes for 135 yards, although not all eight came against Smith.

Tonight at Memorial Stadium, they'll renew the Smith vs. Jones matchup as the CFLs (8-4) try to clinch a playoff berth against Ottawa (4-8).

It's a matchup of a 10-year CFL veteran and a CFL rookie. Jones, a three-time All-East receiver, has seven years and 2 inches on Smith, a 27-year-old rookie.

"They warned me that he would do that," Smith said of Jones' sleight of hand with the ball in the air. "I complained, but their [the officials'] attitude was, no harm, no foul. I don't call a 40-yard pass play no harm.

"Stephen's a great receiver. He admitted he pushed me, but I don't have harsh feelings toward him. He's a competitor and I'm a competitor.

"This week I'll fight fire with fire. I'll make it as physical as I can. Every play, I'll have a hand on him. If he wants to push and hold, I'll do the same and let the ref make the call."

Smith has made the most of his hands-on approach this season. He won the right cornerback job by virtue of a strong training camp. With the exception of Week 4, when he was beaten by Winnipeg's David Williams for two touchdowns, he has been more than capable in a league known to break rookie corners.

"Irvin's definitely doing a good job," said Bob Price, the team's defensive coordinator and secondary coach. "He's doing a good enough job that teams don't say, 'He's in there, let's pick on

him.' He's a hard-nosed player who works hard."

Until last week in Ottawa, Smith had seen surprisingly few balls thrown his way, fewer even than All-CFL cornerback Karl Anthony on the left side. Price said that's the result of opposing quarterbacks' throwing where they feel most comfortable -- to their right.

Through 12 games, Smith has 33 tackles, seven knockdowns and three interceptions. The biggest scare he got was when All-CFL cornerback Barry Wilburn was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs a month ago. Because Wilburn played for coach Don Matthews in Saskatchewan last year, Smith figured he would turn up in Baltimore.

"That was a nightmare," Smith said. "I thought I was playing good, consistent ball, and then I hear Barry Wilburn is getting ready to come here. . . . I figured I'd be the odd man out."

Smith, who went to Poolesville High and lives in Gaithersburg, shouldn't have worried. The CFLs couldn't fit Wilburn in under the salary cap, and Matthews endorsed Smith by saying there was no need for help at the position.

It was a reward for Smith's perseverance. Since leaving Maryland, where he was a two-year starter, Smith had near misses in the NFL with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings. He spent two years in the World League with the London Monarchs.

Along the way, he felt the need to beat a rap he says was undeserved.

Signed by the Jets in 1989 as a free agent, Smith was upset that he had not been drafted. He was told he had the reputation of a great athlete who was inconsistent.

"It's been a motivational thing for me over the years," Smith said. "It's my burning desire to prove at this level I can be a very consistent player. I proved that in London, and I'm proving it here."

Indeed, Smith has proved he belongs in a fast-improving secondary. In the first five games of the season, the CFLs gave up an average of 360 pass yards. The average for the past seven is 241.

A big part of that was the team's revamped pass rush. But while the defensive front underwent weekly change, the secondary of Karl and Charles Anthony, Ken Watson, Michael Brooks and Smith has started every game.

"We're a close unit in the secondary," Smith said. "I enjoy working with a bunch of guys who give me confidence to play aggressive type football."

Ottawa at Baltimore Site: Memorial Stadium

When: 7:30 tonight

TV: Home Team Sports

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)

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