The knock on Ralph Friedgen's office door interrupted a major session of second guessing.
As the University of Maryland's coach replayed the 21-14 loss to Oregon State in the 2007 Emerald Bowl in his mind, he contemplated the difference another fast and physical receiver to pair with Darrius Heyward-Bey would have made. That's when Torrey Smith, who fit the profile but was redshirted that season in a decision Friedgen still questions, was a surprise visitor to his office.
"He walks in and says, 'You know coach, I let you down. I have to be a better leader than I was this year and I'll be a better leader from here on out,' " recalled Friedgen. "He was just a true freshman."
Friedgen, who last coached the Terrapins in 2010, is extremely close with Smith and his family, texting the wide receiver after every Ravens' game. He knows how the wide receiver had been the male influence in his household from a young age. He watched him develop into a pro prospect at wide receiver in three seasons at Maryland despite being almost exclusively a quarterback in high school.
So he's not the least bit surprised that Smith, who was labeled as raw and one-dimensional coming out of college, has emerged as one of the most dangerous deep threats the Ravens have ever had.
"Champ Bailey is supposed to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league, right?" Friedgen asked of the Denver Broncos' 12-time Pro Bowler who was beaten by Smith for two touchdowns in the Ravens' 38-35 victory last week. "I'm seeing him growing in confidence every game. The more success he has, it's not going to go to his head, I'll tell you that. It's just going to make him more determined to be better."
As the Ravens get ready for an AFC championship game rematch with the New England Patriots Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the second-year wide receiver suddenly finds himself as a marked man. Few players have beaten Bailey, a potential Hall of Famer, as easily as Smith did en route to catching three balls for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Smith also got behind Bailey two other times for potential scores but failed to connect with quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Patriots, who liked Smith coming out of college, have seen it before. In last year's AFC championship game, Smith caught three balls for 82 yards and a touchdown. In the Sept. 23 meeting between the two teams this season, a game won 31-30 by the Ravens, Smith had six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns while playing the day after his younger brother, Tevin, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
"He's always been able to run and the guy that makes all the plays down the field," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "He can also run after the catch on the shorter and intermediate routes. If you give him a big cushion, that's a problem, too. He's made a lot of big plays down the field on deep balls and that's opened up things for him underneath as well. He's made a jump to being a very productive NFL receiver and that was maybe less consistent in college. But again, a lot of that has to do — like any receiver's production — with the quarterback he's playing with."
In two seasons, Smith has 99 catches for 1,696 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has three more touchdowns in four career postseason games. Smith ranked fourth in the NFL this season with a 17.4 yards-per-catch average and his 17.1 career average is the most for a Ravens' wide receiver.
"I definitely believe in my talent, regardless of what other people say," said Smith, a second-round pick in 2011. "I know I can do it, and I'm confident in what I do. Just continue to work and trust in the folks around here has helped me a lot. I always approach wide receiver as if it's new for me. I've only been playing this since college. I just try to go out there and prepare every day."
Flacco's trust in Smith has grown steadily and it was on display last Saturday when the quarterback consistently showed a willingness to challenge Bailey. Asked why the Ravens targeted Bailey so frequently, Flacco said succinctly, "We have a good receiver out there."
On the first touchdown, which was a 59-yarder, Smith simply ran right past Bailey. On the second one, Smith adjusted his body and then elevated over the cornerback to catch the ball at its highest point for a 32-yard touchdown. Watching at home, Friedgen was impressed by the play, but he had seen such displays of athleticism before. It was actually Smith's third catch — a 7-yarder on a slant route to get a first down in the third quarter — that resonated with the former Terps' head coach.
"The biggest thing that jumps out at me is how he's catching the ball with his hands right now," Friedgen said. "He had to go up for the ball and reach out for it, and then made the catch. I knew his route running and everything would get better because that's what you do. But I have really seen his hands improve. He would have an occasional drop and I think even in his pro career, he did. Now, I see his hands getting better and better and I see his confidence growing, too."
After Smith made himself eligible for the draft, Friedgen and James Franklin, Maryland's former offensive coordinator, heard all the questions from NFL general managers and talent evaluators about Smith. Can he run more than just deep routes? Are his hands good enough? Will he have enough understanding of an NFL offense?
"They would call and talk about this or that, or things that they were concerned about. I just said, 'Hey at the end of the day guys, this guy has the physical tools that you are looking for and his intangibles are off the charts,'" said Franklin, now the coach at Vanderbilt. "There are a lot of young men across the country who have a lot of ability but there are very few that have the ability plus the character and the intelligence and the drive and then the passion. He's a rare, rare guy. It does not surprise me at all the success that he's having because of all the different skills and traits that he has."
Franklin was also not surprised to see how Smith handled one of the toughest days of his life. Smith learned just after midnight on Sept.23 that his 19-year-old brother, Tevin, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Smith rushed home to Virginia to be with his family but after spending much of the day with them, he returned to Baltimore, deciding that he wanted to play against the Patriots in his brother's honor.
Following the first of two touchdown catches, Smith pointed to the sky and then cried after reaching the sidelines. Nearly four months later, Smith's motivation remains as strong as ever and much like the promise that he made to Friedgen, he doesn't want to let the Ravens down.
"It's my job. I'm here and on this team for a reason, which is to play the best of my abilities and help the Ravens win," Smith said. "I'm just a small piece of the puzzle. I'm glad to be here and if it wasn't for the Ravens in a lot of ways, it would be a lot harder. I'm just thankful to be part of this team."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times