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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Steve Smith steps out of the shadows

Former USC receiver has a more prominent role with the New York Giants.

August 11, 2009|Sam Farmer

ALBANY, N.Y. — The pattern will never show up in a New York Giants playbook, but it's one Steve Smith has known his whole life.

It's called deep undercover.

Despite his outstanding career at USC and two productive seasons in New York, Smith can still slip past fans the way he does defenders.

That's likely to end this NFL season, as Smith steps into a more prominent role with the Giants, who no longer have stars Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress on their roster.

"You've just got to put the talk to rest and go out and show them what you can do," said Smith, who will move from the slot to Toomer's spot outside. "I feel like if I stay healthy, I'll make plays."

And he has already made several of them, including an incredibly important one in Super Bowl XLII against New England that's often forgotten because it was sandwiched between the miraculous helmet catch by David Tyree and the winning touchdown.

Smith, then a rookie, had five catches for 50 yards in the Super Bowl. His biggest came on the winning drive with less than a minute to play when he gained 12 yards on third and 11 from the New England 25. On the next play, Eli Manning found Burress in the end zone for a touchdown.

Of the winning drive, Smith said: "That moment right there was just one of those things where, 'Do you really want to be noticed? Do you want to be remembered forever?' And that's how we approached it."

Devout Giants fans who watch from grassy hillsides or along the fences at the team's University of Albany training camp remember Smith's catch and tell him so.

"It feels good that they remember it," Smith said. "They're always yelling to me, 'Third and 11!' That's all they really need to say."

More often, however, Smith has worn a cloak of anonymity. For example, although he didn't complain, it irked him that he would never see his USC jersey in sporting goods stores around Los Angeles. Instead, the racks were filled with Dwayne Jarrett's No. 8.

"At SC, they loved the big receiver, the big, tall, 6-5 guy," said the 5-foot-11 Smith, who has vastly outperformed Jarrett as a pro. "I wanted to have my jersey in stores like he did, but you can only have one guy.

"That stuff you can't control. That's who the coaches pick. Even if I had the greatest season ever, that's what they decided. I definitely think that gave me a boost to go out there and play even harder."

But the under-the-radar stuff didn't end in college. Before traveling to a divisional playoff game at Dallas during his rookie season, Smith went unnoticed at a table next to a couple of blue-and-silver-clad fans who were boisterously predicting a Cowboys cakewalk.

"I was just laughing on the inside, playing it cool," Smith said. "Pretended I wasn't listening."

He exacted revenge a few days later with four catches in a 21-17 victory by the Giants, their second step in a stunning march to the Lombardi Trophy.

Smith wasn't always Mr. Incognito. In 2004 at USC, he scored three touchdowns in the national championship game. Two years later, he was a first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference selection and was chosen the team's most valuable player.

He certainly wasn't the biggest or fastest receiver around, but his routes were so precise they seemed drawn with a draftsman's tools.

A second-round pick of the Giants in 2007, Smith sat out all but five games in the regular season as a rookie because of shoulder and hamstring injuries. But he was back in force in the postseason and made a significant contribution: 14 receptions for 152 yards in four games.

"You can count on Steve; he's reliable and dependable," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said.

"He also has mental toughness. Even when things aren't going his way, he'll come right back and work just as hard and doesn't get discouraged."

Smith has had to overcome one unexpected obstacle. He was robbed at gunpoint in the early hours of Nov. 25, after a chauffeur dropped him off at his town house in Clifton, N.J. He reportedly lost a substantial amount of cash and jewelry.

"I'm over it now, but it was tough at the time," said Smith, who since has hired an off-duty police officer to accompany him any time he goes out at night. "My whole life could have been over at that point. It just shows that we're targets."

This season, Smith and Domenik Hixon are two of the veteran leaders setting the pace for the receiving corps, which includes rookies Hakeem Nicks (first round) and Ramses Barden (third round). Smith and Hixon, in particular, have worked together closely to fine-tune their games.

"We criticize each other, but it's good criticism," Hixon said. "I might see something and we'll come back and talk about it, 'Hey, Steve, maybe you can lean a little more.' Then I'll run a route and he'll say, 'Maybe you can plant a little bit and come more downhill.' We just challenge each other. Even though we catch the ball, how can we make it better?"

For Smith, no detail is overlooked. When he's not at practice, he walks around camp clicking a grip strengthener. Anything to get an edge. He thoroughly believes he's in the ideal situation, the right time, the right team.

He smiles when he thinks of kids wearing his jersey now, and can't forget the time he spotted a young fan in a shoe store wearing that familiar No. 12.

"I asked him how he felt about that player," Smith recalled. "And he said, 'Steve Smith's a great player.'

"I was like, 'He's right here.' "

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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