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Meridian's Smith gets his shot with Saints

By By Richard Dark / EMG staff writer
Oct. 6, 2002
NEW ORLEANS For Meridian native Kenny Smith, it's all about the here and now. In pro football, many times it takes an injury to a teammate for another who is toiling in anonymity, to show he is a rising star.
In the case of the New Orleans Saints defensive lineman, that time has come. In last week's 26-21 loss to the Detroit Lions, starting defensive end Willie Whitehead sustained a hairline fracture in his leg, leaving him on the bench for nearly three weeks.
To what extent Smith is able to finally take advantage of his long-awaited opportunity will be revealed when he and his New Orleans Saints teammates take on the Pittsburgh Steelers inside the sold-out Louisiana Superdome today at noon. The game will be televised on CBS.
In the absence of a starter, Smith has a golden opportunity to show the Saints coaching staff just why it was he was drafted in the third round.
Perhaps Jim Haslett has a good idea.
No doubt he'd like to see the emergence of Smith, picking up where he left off his rookie campaign, when he grabbed six tackles over the last two contests.
When asked earlier this week about the prospect of searching around the league for some needed depth, Hasletts endorsement was such that the Saints (3-1) had what they needed already working at their Airline Drive facility.
Haslett has had to scramble to piece together a thinning defensive end spot. With Whitehead out, Charles Grant, whom Haslett admitted hasn't played well the last couple of weeks moves in, along with Smith. What he may have in the former pupil of Mac Barnes, is someone who can perform double duty down the road.
And as expected, the whole situation wasnt lost on someone who has had to wait his turn behind some big names in the overall defensive picture.
Over the years, he's learned a lot. The former prep Parade All-American was also the first player in MHS history to move up from junior high to play varsity football, before a stellar career at Alabama.
But here in the NFL, it has been somewhat of a struggle with much uncertainty thrown in. Before the Saints' week two date with Green Bay, Smith again found himself in the eight-man Sunday inactive list. That, coupled with seeing many others he shared that distinction with being released, led him to approach Haslett to get the straight talk from the Saints No. 1 straight shooter.
The former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator three seasons removed did just that, telling Smith that even more hard work was needed, but most of all, patience was key.
That, and living by the sports clich of playing within ones' self.
There's also something to be said for comfort and familiarity, which is what the DE spot for him represents.
The coaching staff isn't the only group that recognizes the upside. Philadelphia native and special teams captain Fred McAfee said he wouldn't be surprised at all if Smith makes an impact against the Steelers.
Whether or not, Smith's family will see them in person this week, remains to be seen. As of Wednesday afternoon, as Hurricane Lili was marching toward the mouth of the Mississippi River, Smith said he was uncertain of the distraction the impending storm would bring and how it would affect his family coming to watch him play.
Beyond the performance of Smith, there are plenty of other subplots for Misissippians to sink their teeth into. How effective will the much-needed McAfee, coming off a three-week injury layoff, be on special teams? Why did offensive tackle Kyle Turley cut the better portion his famous long hair earlier this week? How much will the distractions of Lili, the second major weather threat in the area in as many weeks, have on this team?
And of course, the burning question on the visitors side: Can Tommy Maddox, named the replacement at quarterback this week over struggling New Orleans native Kordell Stewart, provide a needed spark to a 1-3 football team only a year removed from the AFC title game?
McAfee, whose nagging hamstring continues to be a game-time decision said if doesn't get to play against his former team, it won't be the end of the world. But it may be pregame posturing, as all indications point to Al Everest's MVP returning for limited duty.
Notes: These two teams don't meet up very much. Pittsburgh leads the overall series 6-5, with the deciding win coming at Three Rivers Stadium in 1993. The Saints offense leads NFL in touchdown-percentage inside red zone (90 percent: 10 trips, nine TDs). The defense ranks second in NFC in red zone with 28.6 TD percentage (14 trips, four TDs). QB Aaron Brooks has thrown nine TDs so far; tied for tops in the NFC. Cornerback Keyou Craver and rookie speed merchant wideout Donte Stallworth are out for the contest. Veteran Jake Reed will replace Stallworth in the lineup. The Steelers come in banged up as well, with 10 players listed on their injury report.