Too early to give up on Torrey Smith

Maryland receiver Torrey Smith continues to learn his trade at the highest level

September 22, 2011|Mike Preston

Ravens rookie receiver Torrey Smith has already heard the criticisms.

He's just another second round bust. He's just another speed guy. He can't catch a cold.

As the Ravens No. 3 receiver, Smith hasn't played much. He doesn't even have a catch this season.

On most days, he ignores the criticism. On other days, it gets to him.

But after two games into the 2011 season, it's unjustified. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has been around the NFL for nearly 35 years now, the first 13 as an All-Pro tight end with the Cleveland Browns. He has seen some of the best receivers in the game struggle.

"I think if you go back, you'll see that even Jerry Rice struggled in his first year," said Newsome.

Some call it struggling, and others call it a learning process. Smith came to the Ravens as a second round pick out of the University of Maryland. Because he had received glowing recommendations from former Terps head coach Ralph Friedgen, a former offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers, there were expectations that he could play right away.

Smith was going to be the missing ingredient, the speed guy who could stretch defenses vertically and open up the underneath passing game. There has been one problem. Learning to play receiver in the NFL is almost as difficult as learning to play quarterback. Smith has the physical ability to get open, but still needs more knowledge.

That's why there are times when it appears he is jogging on the field.

"I've seen it. He's thinking. At times thinking too much," said Newsome. "You can't play fast when you're thinking."

Smith has heard that a lot from Newsome. They talk a lot. They might talk even more this week because Smith might start pending the Ravens decision on Lee Evans, who is struggling with an ankle injury. If Evans sits out, Smith could be the starter opposite of Anquan Boldin.

"That could possibly happen, we have to see how it works out, see how practices go this week," said Smith. "One thing I've learned is you just have to go out there and play."

It sounds so simple, but it's never that easy for receivers in the NFL. The transition from the college game to the NFL is tough. Basically, in college you run to get open. In the NFL, you have the pre-snap read. Then you have to consider the assignment, alignment and the depth of the rout. Then you have to convert the route because of certain coverages.

Once the ball is snapped, there are sight adjustments and conversion of the route to the proper depth pending on if it's man-to-man or zone.

Then after that comes the easy part: please catch the ball.

"Despite seeing more and more spread offenses in college football, they aren't nearly as sophisticated as passing offenses in the NFL," said Newsome. "It's a major transition for a receiver, whereas with a running back you hand him the ball, and he is basically doing the same thing he has been doing since pee wee league."

With Smith, you can see the wheels turning in his brain when he runs. He had learned to play one of the receiver spots early in camp, but the Ravens needed him to learn the others — quickly.

"I came in, was thrown into the fire in camp and was just getting comfortable where I was getting out on the field and not thinking, then boom, I got switched and thrown another curve ball," said Smith. "It's hasn't been too rough, but you have to learn multiple positions. It's simple, but yet at the same time complex."

As expected, there have been ups and downs. In the third preseason game against Washington, Smith dropped two passes. In the regular season opener against Pittsburgh, Smith got playing time and had a couple of knock-down blocks on running plays. Last week against Tennessee, he got open a couple of times but quarterback Joe Flacco threw elsewhere.

Smith is still trying to overcome the peaks and valleys of a rookie season.

"I try not to get frustrated and just try to produce," said Smith. "Our defensive and offensive leaders have seen me make plays, they know there is potential there. The biggest thing I have going for me is my teammates and coaches still believe in me as a player. I know it is going to come."

The big opportunity could come against the Rams. Maybe Smith will be able to make a play like he did at Maryland last year when he caught 67 passes for 1,055 yards and 12 touchdowns. Maybe the Ravens will devise a couple of short passes that will allow Smith to touch the ball early to get comfortable, or have him run a couple of slants, hitches or bubble screens.

The speed has never been in question.

"I've been playing football forever, so I know the criticism is going to be there forever," said Smith. "I'm not just some speed guy. I can play special teams, tackle, block, catch, make every play as receiver. The hardest thing about your rookie season is knowing how to get open, knowing what you are doing. I'm now at the point where I'm getting open, and not trying to press. I've been trying to please everyone else instead of letting the game come to me. I've been doing this forever, and I just have to go out and play football."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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