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Smith Starting Over With Packers


Of the three players that handled quarterback duties Saturday afternoon in the Green Bay Packers' first training camp practice of 2003, only one came with NFL regular-season experience.

By those standards, former Cincinnati Bengal Akili Smith was the veteran of the group, compared to Craig Nall, who was the Packers' third quarterback as a rookie in 2002, and Eric Crouch, who spent what would have been his rookie season out of football.

But approaching his fifth professional campaign, Smith finds himself at square one, heading into what is essentially a training camp tryout, after which nothing is guaranteed.

"I really believe that I'm starting over," Smith said Saturday, prior to joining the workout for rookies and first-year players.

"To be honest, I'm here fighting for my (football) life. I have to make the team. I understand that. I've got to get ready to play football."

Recently, there hasn't been much football for Smith to play. Not in regular season games anyway.

Drafted in the first round by the Bengals with the third overall pick in 1999, the former University of Oregon standout appeared in a combined 19 games over his first two NFL seasons, but got into only three games over the two seasons that followed.

Last year his one and only shot came against the NFL's stingiest defense in the Tampa Buccaneers. In what was his final appearance in a Cincinnati uniform, Smith completed 12 of 33 passes for 117 yards with one interception.

In June, he was let go. Just over two weeks later, the Packers signed him to a one-year contract, interested to see what Smith might become in a different setting.

"We brought him in for a workout," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman remembered. "Being a high draft pick, you're obviously intrigued. Maybe not for the right reasons, but you're intrigued."

What's intriguing about Smith is that the strong arm and athletic ability that allowed him to set records at Oregon haven't translated into success in the NFL. The Packers are hopeful that Smith's struggles have had more to do with the man's previous environment than the man himself.

Smith hopes the same. After four tumultuous years in Cincinnati, he said what he needed was a fresh start and a coaching staff that believes in him.

Signing with the Packers, he said, "had nothing to do with money or being in a big city ... It had to do with a good organization, a tradition of winning, all the Monday night games, (Brett) Favre, just the whole aura about Green Bay."

With a three-time NFL MVP holding down the starting role, Green Bay could give Smith something he's never really had as a pro: time to develop. Smith said he'd love to study under Favre and would settle for the No. 3 quarterback position if that got him on the 53-man roster.

But for the moment at least, time isn't on Smith's side. Signed to the squad June 18, Smith has had only a month to study the playbook and he's just over two weeks away from being put to the test in the Packers' first preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, August 4.

Considering that Smith is being asked to learn his third offensive system in five years, it seems unlikely that he could do enough in training camp to secure the No. 2 spot. Thus, his future with the team could hinge on the performance of Nall, who is coming off a strong showing in NFL Europe.

If Nall can land the No. 2 job, it would give the Packers more freedom to keep Smith as the No. 3 -- another potential heir to Favre -- and allow him to develop within the system. However, if Doug Pederson retains the backup position, the Packers might have to choose between Nall, Smith and Crouch for the No. 3 spot.

Smith is positive he can succeed, but isn't naïve to the stakes. For him, it could be now or never.

"I look at it as, if I don't have success right now, I probably will start to lose (the confidence) of some people as far as the NFL is concerned," Smith said. "I'm (behind) the 8-ball."

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