Smith feasting on CFL punts

October 12, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Clemson dropped him from its wish list at the 11th hour of the LTC recruiting season.

The NFL took one glance at his time in the 40-yard -- and told him, "No, thanks."

Even the Canadian Football League was slow to embrace Lester Smith, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound free safety with 4.6 speed and a Division I-AA record.

But, as he always does, Smith landed, cat-like, on his feet. This time it's in Baltimore as a punt returner with a nifty first move upfield.

Before, it was at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., where he was one of four football players to have his jersey retired. That was after four years as a starter, the last as a consensus All-American, and 284 solo tackles.

"All through his career, he was known as a hitter," said Marty Long, a defensive line coach with Baltimore and a former assistant at The Citadel. "They nicknamed him Lester the Molester. One game against Army, he had 26 first hits. He was the free safety against the wishbone and had the pitch both ways."

A standout defensive back in high school at Kannapolis, N.C., Smith wound up in Charleston after last-minute maneuvering by Clemson.

"I was in the Shrine game [high school all-star game between North and South Carolina] and they put me at cornerback," he said. "It was the first time I played corner. I did all right."

But not good enough, apparently, for Clemson, which lost interest. That left Smith with few options. He decided on The Citadel, partly at the urging of his mother, who stressed academics. He did not let her down. He graduated with a business degree in four years, then played his last year of football in 1992, having missed a season with a knee injury.

Retired jersey or no, once Smith ran a 4.6 40, he was not desirable to the NFL. When he did not receive an offer for camp, he took a job coaching defensive backs at St. Andrew's High in Charleston.

Next stop: the CFL. Smith had signed to join the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- through personnel director Jim Popp, who moved to Baltimore with coach Don Matthews. Just as camp opened last May, Popp engineered a deal to bring him here.

Smith, 24, was no overnight success. It wasn't until Week 6 that he fielded his first punt. It wasn't until Week 11 that he settled in as the regular punt returner.

Now he's a special teams fixture. Despite playing in seven games, he's third in special team tackles with 11.

L He forced a game-opening fumble last week against Las Vegas.

He leads the team in punt return yards with 454, averaging 13.4.

"He's becoming a premier punt returner," said teammate Malcolm Goodwin. "He has so many moves."

It's the first one that Matthews likes best. "He's got sure hands, he catches the ball in the air and makes the first guy miss him," Matthews said. "Then he heads upfield strong."

Still, Smith's bigger goal is to play defense. He is a free safety-in-waiting who can fill in at linebacker or halfback in Baltimore's scheme.

"We have a lot of veterans, and I try to learn something every day," he said. "Every day I'm asking them questions."

For now, he is content to have landed on his feet once again.

"I'm trying to stay on an even keel," he said.

NOTES: Place-kicker Donald Igwebuike was excused from practice to take care of personal business, Matthews said, and wide receiver Walter Wilson missed because of a death in the family. Both players are expected back today. . . . Linebacker Ken Benson sat out with a sore right ankle but expects to return today.

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