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Tampa Bay Buccaneers kick returner Smith shines by running forward

Clifton Smith, who replaced Dexter Jackson as the Bucs’ kick returner, takes back a punt Sunday against the Cowboys.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Clifton Smith, who replaced Dexter Jackson as the Bucs’ kick returner, takes back a punt Sunday against the Cowboys.

TAMPA — Jon Gruden made a certain observation about new return man Clifton Smith on Sunday at Dallas.

The Buccaneers coach noticed Smith has a particularly good sense of direction, knowing the best way to get up the field is going north and south.

"I like that. A lot of guys go backward," Gruden said. "I'm not saying Dexter (Jackson) did or does. I'm just saying that a lot of guys retreat because there's no one there."

Jackson is the guy whose job Smith, an undrafted rookie, appears to have taken. One of Jackson's flaws as the primary returner during Weeks 1-7 was a tendency to cut back in an effort to gain yards laterally.

Conversely, Smith charged forward each time he handled a punt or kickoff against the Cowboys, making for an impressive pro debut that was marred slightly by a lost fumble. Smith's first touch was a 20-yard punt return, the Bucs' longest of the season.

There's a fearlessness about Smith that makes him appealing.

"It's a hard thing to come by to go out and find a player who will sacrifice his body to run up and catch a ball, hit a hole and be able to give the offense what it needs and keep the defense off the field," Smith, 23, said.

You don't have to remind Gru­den how rare a breed he is.

"When you go forward, there's everybody coming at you," he said. "It's not a job that everybody is after. There aren't a lot of guys that want to return kickoffs and punts in the National Football League.

"You stand down there on the sidelines, and I stand behind players. It's a bizarre scene. These guys are flying down there. It's not for everybody."

Smith was a regular returner at Fresno State and had great success. As a sophomore, he set an NCAA record with three punt returns for 189 yards and two touchdowns against Weber State. And he attended a school that is renowned for its emphasis on special teams.

"We led the country in blocked kicks and other special teams categories," he said. "(Playing special teams) taught me to be a versatile player.

"I can run down on a kickoff and know what I'm doing. I can come off the edge and be a punt rusher and block punts. It helped a lot."

How did the experience translate to the NFL? Smith said he believes he made an impression in Dallas, and it's hard to argue. He was unspectacular on kickoffs, averaging 20.7 yards on three returns. But on punts, he was a significant upgrade, averaging 16.4 yards to Jackson's 4.9.

But Smith worries what he will be remembered for more: his decisive running or his fumble of the second-half kickoff that Dallas recovered.

"I felt like I opened some eyes," he said. "But then again, I'll have that question mark over my head like, 'Well, he might be a fumbler,' which is a stigma I don't want on me at all. It's not my game to put the ball on the ground."

The good news for him is he likely will get another shot Sunday in Kansas City. After spending seven weeks on the practice squad, Smith has learned to wait his turn.

"It's always tough to be patient," he said. "But that's the name of the game. They always say it's a long season and something is bound to happen. … And before you know it, it'll be on you to go out there and take advantage of your opportunities."

Sure enough, Smith's time is now.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers kick returner Smith shines by running forward 10/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:05pm]
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