Torrey Smith was convinced that Anquan Boldin was still in the building. He didn't see him in the Ravens' locker room, but he heard his voice, first coming from the equipment area and then from the training room. But as Smith pulled on his uniform and prepared for a recent practice, Boldin's voice became more distant.
So Smith did what he has become known for in his two seasons in the NFL: he broke into a full sprint. The wide receiver ran down the hallway outside the locker room, pushed open a back door at the Under Armour Performance Facility and glided down the sidelines of the practice field as if a cornerback was chasing him.
"I can't let Anquan beat me out to practice," Smith explained a couple of days later. "He's a vet. I'm only in my second year. That's how I have to approach it."
Smith's physical gifts — his size, speed and athleticism — are undeniable. But if you ask his coaches and teammates why Smith could become the first Pro Bowl wide receiver in Ravens' history and why he'll buck the organization's trend of early-round draft busts at the position, they cite his work ethic, attention to detail and humility.
They'll tell stories about Smith arriving at the team complex this past offseason at 7 a.m. every day to get a workout in and then watch hours of film. They'll joke about how he hangs on Boldin's every word and about his constant questions during wide receiver meetings, seeking the opinion of everyone from his position coach, Jim Hostler, to rookie Deonte Thompson, an undrafted free agent and kick returner.
"He's the ultimate player for a coach to have," Hostler said. "He's enthusiastic, light-hearted. He works so hard and he's so consciousof everything he sees himself do, and he learns from others. Those are all the qualities you want out of a player and very rarely do you get them."
Smith, a second-round pick in 2011 after a standout collegiate career at Maryland, set Ravens' rookie records last year in receptions (50), receiving yards (841) and touchdown catches (team-leading seven). He did it without a standard offseason because of the extended lockout — "We came in right off the street," Smith said — and despite playing a good part of the season with a double sports hernia that required surgery.
Through seven games this season, Smith is fourth on the team in receptions (25), second in receiving yards (435) and he leads all Ravens' receivers in touchdowns (four). He played following the tragic death of his younger brother, Tevin, in a motorcycle accident on the eve of the Ravens' Week Three game against the New England Patriots. Playing through tears, Smith caught six passes from quarterback Joe Flacco for 127 yards and two touchdowns and keyed the Ravens' 31-30 comeback victory.
"Somebody fights through adversity like that, that's a man right there," Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones said. "The sky is the limit for this guy. Remember, it's only year two and we're in the middle of the season. You never know. People hit that second half of the season and just take off."
'Student of the game'
As a member of the Houston Texans last year, Jones had two chances to watch Smith live, and he came away with the same first impression Smith has given throughout his football-playing career.
"You were like, 'Yeah, that's a cat that can run. Send him deep,' " Jones said. "But now I watch him every day in practice and I've watched him work every route. He's getting better. That's the thing. When you're going from a rookie to a second-year receiver, he's learning how to run underneath and read defenses and be detail-oriented. He's become a student of the game."
Smith, 23, has always been credited for possessing strong work habits and an understanding of the game but it took him far longer than he had hoped to feel comfortable with the Ravens' offense. He was the quickest guy on the field all his life, yet Smith found the game moving too fast for him early last year.
He had four catches for 20 total yards in four preseason games. He was then held without a catch in the first two regular-season games, spurring talk that Smith was the latest in a long line of Ravens' wide receiver draft busts. From the day he was drafted, Smith, who is extremely active on Twitter, heard about the struggles of Mark Clayton, Travis Taylor, Patrick Johnson and other Ravens' early-round picks who never materialized.
However, none of those guys — and no other rookie in NFL history for that matter — did what Smith accomplished next. Getting his first start in Week Three against the St. Louis Rams with Lee Evans injured, Smith's first three catches were touchdowns and he finished with five catches for 152 yards.
"My biggest thing was just not being 100 percent confident in my assignments," Smith said. "Being that I understood the pro-style offense in college, it was more like, 'What play do I have this protection or when do I have to worry about this?' Really, I had four weeks to try and get all that. It was just thrown at you. But I'm happy that everything happened how it did. The negative, getting ripped by the media and by the fans, it happens to everyone at some point. I was able to deal with both extremes, the highs and the lows. When I finally did show that I can play here and I belong here, it was a nice feeling."
'What was I doing?'
Last week, Smith was watching tape of the regular-season game last year against Houston and he was appalled by what he saw.
"I'm looking at one play and I was like, 'Wow, what was I doing?,' " Smith said. "Now, it's starting to look how it's supposed to look. I think I'm a completely different player than I was last year in a lot of ways. I'm more polished, definitely more confident. I know what I'm doing, I know what to expect. But I still have a long ways to go."
Smith spent the offseason agonizing over mistakes he made during his rookie year. He watched tape nearly every day, breaking down his own routes and techniques. When he wasn't watching footage of himself and the Ravens' offense, he was studying other NFL receivers, or taking a break to run routes.
"Really, it's the ability to have repetitions and fundamentals that is going to separate you. That's what the offseason does," Hostler said. "It's like, 'OK, I know what I'm supposed to do but now I need enough repetitions built up and I can do it without any thought.' The quarterback sees him doing it all the time the same way. That's what has developed probably more than anything, just the ability to have the repetitions with the proper fundamentals and techniques."
Said Flacco: "I think the biggest part is that he got all the experience last year. Without that, he wouldn't be able to come out here and be as confident and sure of himself as he is. I think that's really why he's able to play so well this year. He's going to be a great receiver. He's right there."
Other teams have taken note. Smith has seen more cornerbacks making checks and safeties rolling over to his side in an attempt to take away the deep ball. Last season, Smith was targeted 41 times on passes of 20 yards or more, catching 12 of them for 456 yards and five touchdowns, according to the web site Pro Football Focus. Through seven games this season, Flacco has thrown 21 passes of 20 yards or more to Smith, and he's caught eight of them for 258 yards and three touchdowns.
Smith acknowledges that he'll probably always be looked at primarily as a "deep threat" even as he works every day to become a more well-rounded receiver. So far this season, 17 of his 25 catches are on throws under 20 yards as the Ravens continue to search for ways to get him the ball.
Smith, meanwhile, continues to hold himself to a high standard. Asked earlier this week about his production in the first half of the season, Smith instead, lamented his first drop of the season against the Texans two days earlier. He was credited for eight drops last year.
That's why he spent so many hours under the Maryland sun this offseason catching balls from Flacco. That's why every day after sprinting out to the field ahead of his mentor Boldin, Smith's first stop is the JUGS machine where he hauls in countless balls before practice even begins.
"I just don't want to be a guy that feels like he's arrived because that's when they get your tail out of here," Smith said. "I'll definitely be loyal to these guys. I owe that to them. They believed in me and my talents and this is where I wanted to play. To be here, I'm definitely thankful for it. I'm going to work and try to be the best player that I can be."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times