TAMPA — Think the Bucs' Clifton Smith is letting the two concussions he suffered last season hold him back?
Try sparring with him.
Smith, 24, said he has incorporated boxing into his offseason conditioning program, going two to three times a week to a local gym. He works with a trainer, spars a bit and hits the heavy bag.
"I'm no (Floyd) Mayweather," he said, joking. "But I'm all right."
Smith knows he's better than that on the field and makes sure to drive past Raymond James Stadium every time he goes to work to remind himself of how far he has come. On the outside walls of the building, along with huge pictures of veteran cornerback Ronde Barber and quarterback Josh Freeman, there's one of Smith, who emerged as an undrafted free agent to become a Pro Bowl kick returner as a rookie two years ago.
"I go across the stadium, and I see all first-rounders and future Hall of Famers," he said. "And I see my picture on the side of the stadium. It's special for me."
But for all the highs Smith has experienced, he is hungry to bounce back from some lows last season, which ended for him Dec. 8 when he was put on injured reserve after sustaining two concussions in seven weeks. Though Smith's kickoff-return average was the second best in team history (29.1 yards), the season left a sour taste in his mouth.
"Last year wasn't a very good year," Smith said. "You can't hide it. I was disappointed in myself. I fumbled again last year, which is something I'm trying to eliminate in this game. You don't make it too far fumbling. Last year was just a roller coaster."
Smith hopes to return to form this season and also get some time at running back. He understands he'll have to cut out fumbles like he had last year against Washington, a turnover that came with 48 seconds left.
And Smith saw how Sammie Stroughter and Micheal Spurlock stepped in and made impacts in the return game in his absence. Stroughter went in after Smith suffered his first concussion, against Carolina on Oct. 18, and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. In the Bucs' biggest win, 20-17 over New Orleans on Dec. 27, Spurlock's 77-yard punt return for a touchdown tied the score in the fourth quarter.
Smith, who says he hasn't felt any postconcussion symptoms, believes he can get back to the level of play he was at in his rookie season, when he averaged 27.6 yards per kick return and was the only player in the NFL to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.
"If you're worried about concussions, you can't play this game," he said. "You can't play this game scared and worried. You've got to strap it up and go full speed."
Smith hopes that in the end, he can finish this season where he did two years ago, in the Pro Bowl.
"I kind of told one of my boys, (Vikings receiver) Bernard Berrian, to tell (reigning NFC Pro Bowl kick returner and Viking) Percy Harvin I'm coming back for my crown," Smith said, smiling. "(Harvin) did a great job last year. … So I've got to compete with him, and now we've got (the 49ers') Ted Ginn in the NFC. So I've got a lot of work to do."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.