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Whack! Another Plant City hit

Florida A&M's world-renowned marching band thrilled a Citrus Bowl crowd Saturday by playing _ and singing _ a popular tune called "End Of The Road."

While the vocal harmony added to the legendary status of the Marching 100, Rattlers strong safety Darrell Smith boosted his reputation with a hit parade against North Carolina A&T.

For Smith, the Boyz II Men tune is an appropriate theme because opposing receivers reach the end of the road whenever they come across the middle. Smith is a 6-foot, 195-pound Plant City native whose No. 31 jersey is seldom visible to the naked eye. Fans are more likely to see an orange-and-green blur flashing across the field to end the hopes of an unsuspecting receiver.

Like the crash of cymbals, Smith collides with opponents and leaves them hearing bells.

"I like to play aggressively," Smith said. "When someone comes across the middle, they better be looking for me."

Against A&T, he led the Rattlers in tackles with 10. Smith said he had to play well because a host of family and friends were in the stands, including brother Kevin, who had joined him in the locker room.

"I knew I had to do it or they would be on my back as well as the coaches," Smith said, while Kevin stood by beaming. "They support me and it makes me try harder."

Smith is averaging 7.8 tackles a game and was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference defensive player of the week after the Howard game.

In that game, Smith had one of biggest tackles of the year, a solid-cold hit that left Bison receiver George Humes singing the groggy blues. Smith stood over a motionless Humes and said, "I told you DON'T come over the middle.

"He likes to knock people out," FAMU defensive coordinator and secondary coach Rick Kravitz said. "When receivers come across the middle, he just lays them out. In all six games, he's had tremendous tackles. He's having a great season."

Kravitz added that it appears the coaches may have made a mistake by not starting Smith sooner. He played primarily on special teams while awaiting his chance, tallying 31 tackles last season. Smith hit No. 1 on the depth chart when starting strong safety Craig Hall graduated.

"I said to myself my opportunity would come," Smith said, "and when it does, take advantage and let my ability take care of everything."

Smith first started making hits at Plant City. His smash-mouth roots were planted by Raiders coach Floyd Kelly, who occasionally measures the quality of a practice by how many players get knocked out.

"Darrell used to hit people so hard he would knock his own self out," Kelly said. "In fact, I understand that's one of the reasons why he didn't start before this year. The coaches thought he hit so hard that he couldn't last a whole season.

"But that's what you want, somebody who brings the thunder."

Kelly practices aren't all about thundering hits and lightning knockouts. He couples his tackling studies with lessons on leadership.

"My senior year I was a team leader and people looked up to me," said Smith, one of only four seniors starting on FAMU's defense. "That's how it is this year. It's special when people are looking for you to make the big plays, the big hits."

"He was the No. 1 leader and the team captain when he was here," Kelly said. "We went up to Florida State for a coaches clinic this spring and the staff also went over to FAMU. That day he was out there talking to the players just like he did here."

Kelly, whose team has lost its last two games, said he wants Smith to come back and talk to the Raiders next week, when Plant City has an open date before playing district-rival Manatee.

Of course, Smith and the Rattlers have their own championship to worry about. FAMU (5-1) is undefeated in its conference and its only loss was to Miami. The Rattler players would like to compete for the Division I-AA national championship, but because FAMU plays Bethune-Cookman in the Florida Classic on Thanksgiving weekend, they are ineligible for the playoffs.

The Division I-AA playoffs begin the same weekend, and school officials choose to bypass the title because of the revenue generated from the game at Tampa Stadium.

Although FAMU begins the season with no chance of being the nation's best, the team does have a shot at winning the MEAC title and playing in the fledgling Heritage Bowl, which pits the MEAC champ against the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champ.

"We can go as far as they allow us," a confident Smith said. "The Heritage Bowl is like the Super Bowl for us."