Sometimes being in the NFL is not as glorious as it may seem. It takes tons of hard work, dedication, and a little bit of luck never hurts. One person who seems to know this all too well is Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Clifton Smith.
Smith, 25, joined the Bucs in 2008 as an undrafted free agent. After starting the season off on the practice squad, Smith played in the final nine games and averaged 27.6 yards per kick return and 14.1 yards per punt return. He also recorded one kickoff return for a touchdown and one punt return for a touchdown. Smith was rewarded for his stellar rookie campaign by being selected to the Pro Bowl that year.
Every offseason there are many undrafted players just like Smith who are trying to make a name for themselves and earn a roster spot. Smith knows it is not always easy and shares his advice to his teammates who are battling for a chance to join him on Sundays.
"I know how hard it is when you first come in," said Smith. "You are trying to impress so many people. You want to try and give it your all. You want to go out there and not mess up, but you have to tell them to just go out there and relax. Your work ethic is what got you here. Your athletic ability is what got you here. You have to go out there and have fun and don't worry about everything. Just go out there and play the game."
This year, the Bucs have some promising young players who are looking to make the same kind of impact that Smith had back in 2008. Players like defensive end George Johnson, who the Bucs have been raving about so far this offseason, can look up to Smith - or down to him due to his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame - and use his accomplishments as an inspiration to help guide them along.
"The players and coaches have been helping me non-stop," said Johnson. "They give me answers when I ask them what I can do better."
Johnson, who went undrafted out of Rutgers, had a tremendous offseason and is looking like he might earn the fourth defensive end spot when it is all said and done. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Johnson has come in since day one at rookie mini-camp and worked his tail off to impress the coaching staff. Smith values that and compliments the guys who are in the same situation that he was in.
"I definitely have to give guys like that, who came in the hard way like I did, words of encouragement because it is possible," said Smith. "It can happen. Last year we had Kareem Huggins. He went to make the 53 [man roster] at the end of the season and it can be the next guy who comes along to make the 53. You never know. It is possible."
When Smith isn't building up his undrafted teammates, the Fresno State product is working to pick up right where he left as he averaged a career best 29.1 yards per kick return in 2009. His season was cut short by being placed on injured reserve however, after suffering two concussions. Despite the injuries, Smith is not looking to take it easy and is going through the offseason as he normally would.
"I know no such thing as cutting back," said Smith. "I don't do that. I go boxing two or three times a week. I can't worry about stuff like concussions. I have to keep working hard."
The boxing regime that Smith performs during the offseason helps gets him into football shape and he jokes that he might even consider it as a career option once he is done on the field.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Smith. "I'm working on my conditioning. I work on my hand speed. Hopefully, one day you might even see me in the ring."
Smith's sole focus for the upcoming season is not just on helping the Bucs in the return game. He is also working hard this offseason to see more work at the running back position. With Cadillac Williams entrenched as the starter and Derrick Ward behind him, Smith is in a battle with Huggins for the third running back spot.
"We have a lot of competition," said Smith. "We have a lot of depth at different positions so it is a lot of fun going out there and competing everyday."
In his two years with the Bucs, Smith has 12 carries for 47 yards (3.9 avg.) and has six receptions for 28 yards (4.7 avg.). During his limited time though, Smith has had a problem holding on to the football. He has seven fumbles in 20 games, while having lost four of them. The fumbles do not seem to be an issue for the Bucs as he has been seeing a lot of time carrying the ball this offseason.
"I'm taking a lot of reps at running back right now," said Smith. "We are switching every rep, getting a new running back in on every rep. So, I just trying to get every chance I get and run with it."
And run with it he must if Smith is to do what he does best and get back to Pro Bowl form.