On draft day, back in April, first Washington Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, then Coach Joe Gibbs, walked into a news conference at Redskin Park, squinted into the bright camera lights and told everyone what a great running back Timmy Smith could be.
They liked his speed, his stocky, solid size and his slashing style of running. He had been injured, they mentioned. He played in just five games in his last two years at Texas Tech because of knee and ankle injuries. He still had a six-inch steel plate in his right ankle, broken during practice after the first game of his senior season.
The Redskins took Smith in the fifth round. Other teams were interested in him, but wary. He was in a cast for two months last fall and was not able to work out for NFL scouts until just before the draft. The Redskins flew him in and put him through a physical and a workout a week before the draft and figured he was healthy enough to pick.
At that time, who would have guessed Smith would become their leading rusher in preseason, their starter in the final preseason game and a serious contender for playing time as long as George Rogers and Kelvin Bryant fought injuries?
On Sept. 1, running backs coach Don Breaux pulled Smith aside after practice at Redskin Park and told him he would start the final preseason game.
"Great!" said Smith, an exuberant player who can't seem to wipe an almost cherubic, innocent look off his face. "Let's see if I can handle it. I think I can handle it, but let's see. Shoot, it's been a year since I started a game."
Smith showed in preseason he is adept at bouncing outside once a hole gets plugged with defenders. He did that for an 11-yard touchdown against Green Bay and a 33-yard run against Tampa Bay. From the first day of practice, Gibbs said Smith would be given the ball to show what he could do. He fumbled early but has held onto the ball recently, and other than some rookie mistakes, has been everything the Redskins had hoped.
Ed Simmons, the close-to-300-pound offensive tackle from Eastern Washington, has a similar story to tell. The Redskins took a chance on him, too. Beathard wondered about his "work habits," saying Simmons had not spent too much time in the weight room. Simmons said once his senior season ended, he thought no one was interested in him.
Enter the Redskins, the lonely hearts club of the NFL. They thought if they could get him motivated (and it didn't take much), they would have a fine tackle. So they drafted him in the sixth round and sent him to the weight room. Although Simmons still has a lot to learn on the field, the Redskins believe he is good enough to make the team, back up Mark May and perhaps start somewhere down the road.
"If I achieve all of my goals and accomplish all that I hope to this year, I can see somewhere down the line -- maybe two or three years -- going to the Pro Bowl. Hopefully, this year, I could be on the all-rookie team."
A glance at the starting lineup would make it appear the Redskins are the same team they were a year ago. But, turn this team upside down and you'll find a Smith, a Simmons, a Brian Davis, a Wally Kleine on injured reserve.
The team drafted 11 players in the spring. After the fiascos and failures of the past few years -- of Bob Slater, Tory Nixon and Walter Murray -- the team is satisfied that it will get the help it needs out of several of its draftees. Davis, whose stock has risen the last few weeks, looks destined for reserve cornerback status this season, and perhaps nickel coverage.
Kleine, the team's 6-foot-9, 310-pound offensive tackle project, is likely to spend the season on injured reserve with a bum knee, learning how to play the offensive line after being a defensive tackle at Notre Dame. Smith is the third or fourth running back. The team thinks highly of free safety Steve Gage, another sixth-round choice, who was a quarterback at Tulsa.