Chargers' Smith Plans to Raid More Than the Icebox

Times Staff Writer

It isn't in the playbook, but one of the most successful maneuvers by a Charger defender this summer involves linebacker Billy Ray Smith.

First, he drives his black Jeep from the practice field to a parking lot near the dorm where he's quartered. Then he blitzes the public relations office, heading straight for the refrigerator.

With a look that is half guilt and half rapture, he reaches in and helps himself to a frosty strawberry soda. Journalists with access to the frig have yet to raise an objection.

Entering his third season, Smith is going to be raiding more than the icebox in 1985. With the Chargers due to employ some challenging new defenses, Smith is going to have a more prominent role as a blitzer attacking the pocket.

Perhaps the more aggressive role will gain him enough visibility to satisfy the second-guessers in the media and in the stands who have judged him to be a bit less than advertised since his arrival as a No. 1 draft choice in 1983.

Not that Smith is concerned about pleasing the critics.

"I've played pretty decently since the second half of my rookie year," Smith said. "My expectations of myself are to play as hard as I can and give the Chargers my best.

"Some people may look at my senior year in college, when I had about 30 plays behind the line of scrimmage. But to expect an inside linebacker in pro football to get in the backfield that often is just crazy."

Actually, it's misleading to say Smith doesn't address himself to the complaints of the critics. There is one he does heed--his dad, Billy Ray Smith Sr., the former great defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts.

The elder Smith is a businessman in Dallas. He keeps a critical eye focused on his son's every move in a televised game. His habit is to reach for the telephone each Monday morning when he gets to the office.

"He always calls at 9 a.m. his time, which is 7 out here," Billy Ray Jr. said. "I'm usually in no mood to hear what I did wrong at that hour.

"My dad is probably my toughest critic. He always gives me a preview of what the coaches are going to say after reviewing the game films. As long as my mom doesn't try to get in on the criticism, though, I should be fine."

Living up to his name never has been a problem, Smith said. That's because he has enjoyed success ever since his grade school days.

Smith's biggest problem as a pro has been pass coverage, according to defensive coordinator Tom Bass. And that's an area where he is making gradual improvement.

Experience has helped, as has a recent gain in speed from off-season workouts. Smith ran a 4.6 40 in July, which would put him near the front rank of inside linebackers.

"Most of the criticism has come from people who don't understand what he is asked to do in our scheme," Bass said. "Billy is as knowledgeable as any linebacker I have ever coached, and he has met all our expectations."

Bass called Smith an excellent blitzer who should have a higher profile this year when the Chargers play more man-to-man in the secondary, allowing for more blitzing.

"I think the guy has Pro Bowl capability," Bass said. "It wasn't fair for people to blame him for any problems when he moved from the outside (as a collegiate defensive end) to inside linebacker in a defense that was pretty porous."

It is the contention of both Smith and Bass that the defense will be significantly less leaky this season.

Smith, admittedly, is an optimist and he wouldn't be likely to vent any despair, if he felt it. Bass is a bit more of a realist, a guy with a touch of gallows humor at times, yet he seems to share Smith's rosy view.

"I think we can be as effective as any defense in the league if we eliminate the little mistakes," Smith said.

Mere mediocrity seems a more realistic goal for a defense that has been mired at the bottom of the statistical heap for three years, but Smith isn't setting any limits.

Just what are the little things he had in mind? The lack of a pass rush? A couple of long bombs each Sunday?

"Nope," he said, slurping on one of his sodas. "I just mean wrapping up a ballcarrier with both arms, or putting your hands in the quarterback's face, or keeping your eyes on the receiver you've got. If we do those things consistently, we will be better because our scheme is going to work."

With a replenished line and secondary, featuring more speed and athleticism, the Charger scheme will be more varied than in the past. One new wrinkle, as Smith already noted, will be increased reliance on man-to-man coverages as opposed to heavy use of zones.

One of Smith's jobs as defensive signal caller is to keep teammates alert and peppy. It has been that way his entire career, so it comes naturally to him by now.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy," Smith said. "That wouldn't work, coming from me. What I'm talking about has to come from within the man, and is different in each situation. It's not a psych job. It has to be totally sincere."

There is no bitterness over the reception he received in his first two years, but Smith clearly thinks better times are coming for him, and soon.

"I remember how frustrated I felt my first couple of weeks in San Diego," he said. "I wasn't making the impact I wanted to have. But my confidence has been increasing since early in my rookie year, and I'm a little stronger and a little faster, too.

"I've never missed a practice since I've been here, and I can say I've given the Chargers my best. I'm not totally satisfied, but I think I'm still improving and, more important, our defense is getting better."

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