Redskins' `A' team has fresh look with Gardner and Smoot

Top two selections short on maturity, long on talent

Pro Football

September 09, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - For two guys who showed up late, Rod Gardner and Fred Smoot have made up for lost time.

Gardner and Smoot, the Washington Redskins' first two draft picks, each arrived at training camp tardy, as details of their contracts were being hammered out, with both signing the first week of camp.

As a result, there was no reason to believe that either of them, much less both, would be able to supplant the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart and crack the starting lineup for today's season opener in San Diego.

Yet, when the Redskins take the field this afternoon, Gardner will line up at receiver, along with Michael Westbrook, and Smoot will play right cornerback, on the other side of Pro Bowl player Champ Bailey.

If outsiders are a bit taken aback by their rapid rise, neither Smoot nor Gardner is.

"I feel I'm ready to start. I feel I'm ready to play," said Smoot, the team's second-round choice from Mississippi State. "There's no doubt in my mind I'm ready to play. Do I have a lot to learn? Yeah, but at this point, my talent level is such that I'm good enough to play right now. I know I'm good enough to play."

Gardner, taken with the 15th pick in the first round out of Clemson, is a bit more circumspect than Smoot, but no less self-confident.

"Right now, some people might say that it's too early, but if you think about it, if you put me in there now, I can improve," said Gardner. "If you wait until later in the season [to play him], I might not be as good. Right now, I look at it for the best and I'm looking to keep my starting job."

Smoot and Gardner are the most visible of 24 new players on the Washington roster after the 2000 season, a year in which the Redskins loaded up on all-star talent such as Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Jeff George in a push for the Super Bowl, only to end up 8-8.

The lackluster season sent coach Norv Turner packing, coincidentally, to San Diego, where he is the Chargers' offensive coordinator.

Turner's replacement, former Cleveland and Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer, carries the reputation of being conservative, so moving the youngsters into the starting lineup, along with rookie free-agent right guard David Brandt, is a bit of a surprise.

However, said Schottenheimer: "That [starting rookies] has become commonplace in the National Football League, where there are a lot of changes taking place. The fact that they're young players in and of itself might give you some anxiety. But what we did was take a No.1 choice and a No. 2 choice, and it would appear with the early returns that both of them are going to be pretty good players for us."

Of the two, Smoot was thought to have the best NFL potential, winning All-America honors last season, where he intercepted and seemed to be a lock to go in the first round of the draft, if not the first corner taken.

However, Smoot was arrested in March in Starkville, Miss., on marijuana possession charges, and though the charges were dropped, his stock fell and he landed in the Redskins' lap in the second round, the 45th pick overall.

Though his game and flamboyant, trash-talking style have been compared to that of Sanders, whose number 21 he inherited after Sanders retired, Smoot says he's more like Darrell Green, the 19-year veteran whom he beat out through training camp and preseason to start.

"You know how you have a car and it looks good, but it's missing all of those little parts that make the car what it is? He [Green] is teaching me, and every little thing I do wrong, he's on me," Smoot said. "He tells me, `No, you have to go out with your left foot or you have to use this hand.' He's set me up to be good for a long time."

Bailey, the left-side corner and a Pro Bowl starter last year, concedes that teams will try to pick on Smoot and that the rookie has a lot to learn, but also allows that he has the makings of something special.

"He has a lot of pluses and little minuses," said Bailey. "He's obviously a great athlete, but he knows he has to polish up technique, and a lot of little things like that. But he's a great player right now."

Gardner's rise is more of a surprise, especially when it's considered that in his first two seasons at Clemson, he only caught 28 passes, serving mostly as a blocker.

However, once coach Tommy Bowden arrived in Death Valley after Gardner's sophomore year, bringing a more wide-open passing attack, Gardner's reception total shot up, to 80 in his junior season and 58 last year.

"At first, I really couldn't showcase my talents, but once Tommy Bowden came in there, I was on a roll. It was no stopping me then," said Gardner, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds.

Gardner had a couple of mental lapses during the Redskins' preseason games, dropping a certain touchdown pass in the loss to Atlanta and failing to run full out on a route against New England on a play in which Jeff George's pass was intercepted.

But he beat out former Chiefs receiver Kevin Lockett, who played for Schottenheimer in Kansas City.

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