Rookie Torrey Smith catching on faster than expected
Receiver has been forced into critical role this season — and responded
Torrey Smith made this reception while posting a single-game Ravens rookie receiving record in the first meeting against the Cincinnati Bengals this season. (DOUG KAPUSTIN, MCT / November 20, 2011)
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As quarterback Joe Flacco rolled to his right and heaved a high-arcing ball 65 yards down the field, the Ravens' rookie wide receiver got behind Browns cornerback Joe Haden and safety Mike Adams, who was forced to haul down Smith as he leapt to make another long reception.
The 60-yard pass interference penalty set up Flacco's first touchdown pass of the game. And while it won't show up in Smith's stat totals, the play's impact was not lost on Cam Cameron.
"I don't know too many guys who could beat two guys like that when basically, they knew it was coming," the Ravens' offensive coordinator said. "We've got to continue to get that out of Torrey."
Smith's fleet feet are no longer a secret, not since he hauled in five catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 3 win over the St. Louis Rams. But as his rookie season — the best by any first-year wide receiver in franchise history — continues, Smith has quietly been making strides to become a more complete receiver, not just one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats.
His quarterback, his offensive coordinator and a former mentor at the University of Maryland all say he's a fast learner. But with No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin sidelined by a knee injury, Smith's learning process has been accelerated even quicker.
"I'm still raw and still learning," Smith said. "Due to [the tutelage of wide receivers coach Jim Hostler] and just working hard, I've learned a lot and I've grown a lot, and I can see it just from looking at film from Day One until now. I'm still far from perfect, but I can see progress."
Smith has always been blessed with remarkable straight-away speed. "It's been that way since forever," he says. It was that way when he starred as a high school player in Virginia and when he was an All-ACC first-team receiver in his final season at the University of Maryland.
But improving his fundamentals — things such as hand placement while catching passes, making sharper cuts and disguising his routes — has been his "No. 1 priority" since arriving in Baltimore as a player that some draft analysts said was a raw athlete who would be a long-term project. It didn't help that he struggled in training camp and had no receptions in his first two NFL games.
"Poor technique has led to my drops. It has led to bad routes at times. And I need to improve my blocking," the second-round pick said. "Once I get technically sound, I'm going to be tough to stop."
Smith has dropped several passes this season, but he has taken criticism from media and fans in stride, according to Kevin Glover, Maryland's Coordinator of Development, Alumni and Community Relations and a former All-American offensive lineman for the Terps who played 15 seasons in the NFL.
The two were close during Smith's time in College Park, and they stay in touch via text message. At a Terps game early in the fall, Smith showed Glover negative tweets from Ravens fans.
"He's handled it a lot better than most rookies would have," said Glover, who was a three-time Pro Bowler. "Most rookies would have been frustrated and not wanted anyone to see it, but he wanted to show us that he knew about the criticism and he wanted to prove everyone wrong.
"He had a big game against the Rams, and it was full speed ahead from there."
Smith has since established new Ravens rookie records in receptions (45), receiving yards (808) and touchdowns (seven). His 165 receiving yards last month against the Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) — the team the Ravens (11-4) play Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium — are a Ravens rookie record for a single game.
He is tied for first among NFL rookies in receiving touchdowns. He ranks third in receiving yards. And his 18 yards-per-catch average is fifth among all NFL players with at least 25 catches.
Thanks in part to his success on the field, Smith's remarkable life story — he helped his mother, Monica Jenkins, raise his six siblings through borderline poverty — was recently featured on the "Today" show. He said that was "pretty cool," but he's more concerned with the attention that opposing defenses are giving him, especially now that Boldin isn't in the lineup to lead the way.
"That kind of comes with the territory. I've made a few plays now so people are getting to know me," Smith said. "I'm not going to surprise anyone anymore, so I've got to bring it every week."
Though Flacco is the man whose job is to get Smith the football, the fourth-year quarterback was hesitant to take credit for playing a role in Smith's development.
"He's the guy with the talent," Flacco said. But he did say that he is proud of Smith for working hard and playing well.
"I think you guys have been able to see how much he's been able to get better," Flacco said.
And as Smith continues to grow up in the NFL — and eventually grows old, something the rookie talked about as if the twilight of his career loomed on the horizon — he is eager to prove that he is not just a receiver who blazes behind awestruck defenders. He wants to be the total package.
"I can see it coming on," he said. "I want to prove that I can do more than just run straight. I can run all the different routes. That's something people didn't think I could do or that there was a possibility that it was something I could do. I don't want to be known as just a fast football player.
"You're not going to be fast forever, so I just want to be the best overall receiver that I can be."