Thursday, August 18, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

When Jeff Smoker arrived at the Four Points Sheraton for training camp, he did so knowing that there was going to be plenty of competition at the quarterback position.

Obviously, the starting job belonged to Marc Bulger, but the idea of competing with Jamie Martin for the second-string job was at the forefront of the second-year signal-callers mind.

“I didn’t come in here to sit on the bench and I want to get a chance to play so I’m going to shoot for that backup spot,” Smoker said at the time. “Hopefully nothing happens to Marc, but if something does I can get in there and do the job.”

Well, Smoker was right, there is plenty of competition at quarterback this year, but it isn’t the kind that he expected. With Bulger entrenched as the starter and Martin playing well as the backup, Smoker has finds himself engaged in a dogfight for the third and probably final quarterback spot on the roster.

In fact, Smoker might have fallen behind in his competition with Harvard rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick, at least if the first preseason game was any indication. In Friday’s game against the Bears, Fitzpatrick was the third quarterback to play, participating in about twice as many plays as Smoker.

Even in practice, Smoker has just started getting repetitions again in a backup role.

“It feels good to get in there and get some reps and make a couple mistakes here and there and be able to learn from them,” Smoker said. “One day you can do good and the next day you can do bad again. I’m just trying to steadily improve.”

With four quarterbacks and probably only three spots to go around, Smoker and Fitzpatrick appear poised to duel it out for the final spot. Fitzpatrick has nudged ahead of Smoker through his ability to retain information and willingness to take a hit in the pocket. While Smoker is probably more physically gifted, he needs to keep up in the classroom.

Those struggles have limited Smoker’s reps and increased Fitzpatrick’s.

“I wouldn’t say (I’m) worried,” Smoker said. “It’s just a little bit frustrating sometimes. Having to stand and watch is not something I’m used to. I did it last year and now this year again. It’s harder to learn when you’re watching and not getting the reps. Being the third quarterback during the season that’s what you have to do so I have to learn how to learn that way.”

Smoker has started to get opportunities in practice again and coach Mike Martz praised him for his practice earlier this week, but he still needs to prove himself. Smoker isn’t sure how much he will play Sunday at San Diego, but with it looking like Bulger could play the whole first half, chances for quarterbacks down on the depth chart might not be too plentiful.

Regardless, Smoker knows he needs to take advantage of his chances.

“Knowing my reps are limited (means) I want to make the most of them,” Smoker said.

INJURY UPDATE: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (groin) participated in Thursday’s workout and could be ready to go in time for Sunday’s game.

While Pickett returned, a pair of offensive linemen took the day off. Darnell Alford (illness) and Claude Terrell (leg) missed the afternoon session. Joining them on the sidelines were linebackers Brandon Chillar (shoulder) and Louis Ayeni (calf).

JUST VISITING: Groups from the Shriners Hospital and Covenant House stopped by Rams Park on the last day open for visitors during the preseason.

Also in the house was USA Today football writer Larry Weisman.