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SMITH'S PLAY TAKES A PAGE RIGHT OUT OF CARTOON HISTORY

There's no hesitation once he makes the catch, not the slightest hint of indecision. The ball hits his hands and he's off, his feet pedaling up a storm, kind of like Fred Flintstone laying skin on the way to the bowling alley, which couldn't be more appropriate.

Jonathan Smith and Fred Flintstone were always tighter than granite. Every morning before grade school Smith would park himself in front of the television, his world not the same unless he caught that day's episode of "The Flintstones," paid a visit to Bedrock and heard his favorite cartoon character bellow, "Wilma!"

"I got up before school to watch that show," Smith said. "I used to think I was Fred Flintstone. So my family started calling me 'Freddie.' "

It wasn't long before Jonathan "Freddie" Smith evolved into "Fast Freddie" Smith. His exploits on the football field were responsible for the adjective attached. The kid did it all at Clinch County High in Homerville, Ala., playing quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, making all-state. But what thrilled him most, what's always thrilled him most, was catching a punt and negotiating the meandering maze that unfolded before him. It's a scenario that reduces football to speed and instincts, a game of catch me if you can.

"I try not to think, just run and score touchdowns," Smith said. "It's probably my most fun thing to do, punt returns. I did it in high school. I did it all my life. You never know what's going to happen."

We're getting an idea. Smith nearly returned another punt for a touchdown Sunday, nearly took it to the Water Buffalo Lodge while setting the stage for the Buffalo Bills' second-half dominance of the St. Louis Rams in a 37-17 victory at The Ralph. He fielded a Sean Landeta punt at the Buffalo 42, making for the end zone as if late to work and fearing the wrath of Mr. Slate.

He burst through the initial opening provided by a Nate Clements block, slipped defenders, shed another tackler with a pirouette that conjured memories of Fred Flintstone's fling with ballet lessons (minus the tutu). He was 5 yards from returning a punt for a touchdown in consecutive games, as he did last year at Georgia Tech, when the Rams' Brandon Chillar hauled him down from behind, tempering the euphoria.

"As soon as I got back I didn't hear too many congratulations," Smith said. "It was like, 'Man, you got caught at the 5.' I was like, 'Aw, man, I didn't know. I didn't think anybody else was there.' I was getting out of gas too. I'm not going to lie. But I thought I was going to score."

(Memo to Jonathan: Fred Flintstone never ran out of gas).

The sideline razzing worsened when Clements returned the next St. Louis punt for a touchdown, racing 86 yards, somersaulting into the end zone for good measure.

"So now they're picking on me about that," Smith said. "It was like we got this guy who can go to the 3-yard line, and we've got another returner who can take it all the way."

The Bills selected Smith with their second seventh-round pick in last April's draft. Then they tucked him away on the practice squad, activating him when injuries created a need for depth at receiver. He had an inauspicious debut against the Jets two weeks ago, incurring two special-teams penalties, including one for a late hit on his first play in the NFL. At that point it made perfect sense that the back of Jonathan Smith's jersey read "F. Smith." Maybe he could bury his true identity in a cloak of confusion.

Smith's teammates, if not the masses, knew there was a dangerous player waiting to emerge. He'd shown them a few things in practice, flashed his capabilities. Of course, Bobby April, the special teams coach, saw it, too. That's why he broke with convention, employing Smith alongside Clements for punt returns, doubling the peril for teams kicking away to the Bills.

"We knew Freddie was a great athlete from way back," said backup linebacker Josh Stamer, a member of the punt return unit. "That's why he's on the team. That's why the coaches kept him. He's always had return ability."

Smith formally introduced himself to Bills fans last week at New England, taking a punt and romping 70 uncluttered yards to rescue Buffalo from the embarrassment of a shutout loss on national television. You had to wonder if it was a bit of a fluke, a matter of circumstance, since the Patriots were in charge and disinterested. His return against the Rams scuttled that notion and stamped him a legitimate threat. Seventy yards one game, 53 the next.

"I'll tell you what, that kid, he's got some great moves," Stamer said. "Once he got in the open field he made at least a couple of people miss. But I'll tell you one thing he does real well, right when he catches the ball he goes straight north and south. He'll get up the field and then he'll make a few moves here and there. But he'll just get that ball and go."

No doubt about it. There's something special about Smith. Two returns and it's Bamm-Bamm. Or maybe yabba dabba doo.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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