Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith strolled into the locker room this week looking like a man without a concern in the world, right up until the second he realized a reporter was standing in front of his locker, notebook in hand. Smith leaned his head back, sized up his inquisitor, and raised his eyebrows with skepticism.
"Ah man, don't tell me you're waiting to talk to me," he said.
An uncomfortable silence hung in the air for a few seconds, before Smith smiled to reveal he was joking. He was happy to sit and chat, to talk about his possible start Sunday night in San Diego. He just enjoys poking fun at his reputation as someone who is difficult to deal with, someone who spent a month leading up to the NFL draft hearing about what a bad person he was.
In some respects, the draft seems like it happened years ago. And all the concerns and questions about Smith's "character issues" look — at least thus far — like much ado about nothing. The Ravens' first round pick has had a wild rookie season, but not because of anything he's done off the field. He's been injured, he's picked off passes, and he's been burned for touchdowns — but away from football his life has been quiet and controversy free.
Not bad for someone who, in a pre-draft survey done by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, had at least 11 general managers anonymously declare they wouldn't even consider drafting him in the second round, much less the first, because of issues he had in college.
Even Smith says he understands now why he fell to 27th overall pick after reports of multiple failed drug tests and two arrests in alcohol-related incidents.
"I always knew what I was capable of and what my intentions were," Smith said. "But, to be honest, it's kind of hard to go against my track record when I was in college. So I understand why teams did what they did. At first it was tough [falling in the draft]. It was a blow money-wise, but I'm way more happy here [in Baltimore] than I think I would have been anywhere else. I'm really glad I ended up here."
The Ravens are just as glad, and that's especially true this week as Smith is a virtual lock to start in place of an injured Lardarius Webb. Even if Webb's turf toe were to miraculously recover by Sunday — unlikely considering he's been in a walking boot all week and hasn't practiced — the Ravens will still rely heavily on Smith as they try to slow down a potent San Diego Chargers passing attack. Games like this, where Baltimore has to cover a pair of tall, fast, athletic wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, are the reason the Ravens decided to roll the dice and draft the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith. No one has ever questioned his talent.
Smith was hoping to show everyone what he could do much sooner. But suffering a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff of the year pushed the pause button on what everyone assumed was going to be a stellar rookie season.
"I thought I broke it when it happened," Smith said. "I heard it pop, and on my way down to the ground I thought 'Well, I'm done for the year.' I couldn't believe it. When they told me it was a high sprain, I was actually excited about it. I knew I'd be back this season at the least."
Smith's injury, however, couldn't help but make Ravens fans a little nervous. How would he handle all that idle time? Would frustration lead to temptation and prompt another headache? In 2010, Sergio Kindle was injured in a fall prior to training camp, and as he dealt with the disappointment of missing the season, he was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. No one wanted to see two high picks in a row struggle with issues away from the field.
"Being injured and being the number one choice, there was a lot of pressure," Smith said. "I was here for a reason, and I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh wasn't particularly worried. He insisted, as he does for all his injured players, that Smith attend every meeting, come to every practice and eat at every team meal. It was important for Smith to get treatment, but he still had to prepare every week as if he were 100 percent healthy. Not every NFL team has that policy, but it's important to the Ravens.
Harbaugh made it a point to talk to Smith a bit more than normal because he didn't want the rookie to feel frustrated that he wasn't contributing, but he says he was confident Smith wasn't going to let anyone down, regardless of what his reputation was prior to the draft.
"The questions about Jimmy turned out to be unfounded," Harbaugh said. "When we did our homework on him, we felt like, 'Wow, this guy is a really great kid. He's a really humble guy. He's intelligent, he's conscientious.' And the good thing is, it turned out we were right. I think we do have a great support system and good role models, but he's a good person."
That's apparent now, but even Smith's teammates didn't know what to expect when he first arrived in Baltimore. He'd been criticized so much for what happened at Colorado, and many of the Ravens just assumed a lot of it might be true.
"He was completely different than what I was expecting," said rookie running back Anthony Allen, who has become Smith's closest friend on the team. "I was expecting a thug, a guy who just don't care about nothing. But he's a good kid. He's a real outgoing guy. He says what's on his mind. He doesn't hold back much, but he's a fun guy to hang around. He cares a lot about football. He just wants to win."
Smith missed five weeks with his ankle injury before the Ravens gradually began working him back into their defense. And they had no hesitation about putting him right back on special teams, even though that decision angered plenty of fans.
"It's part of football," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes people act like it's not part of the game, like it's not part of the team. You incorporate your guys in there the best you can, and it is part of the developmental process. It's how guys learn how to play in the NFL, how to be a part of the team. If you did it the other way, it would be like saying 'This is not important.' We want everybody to want to do it. It's like the butterfly and the cocoon. You cut the cocoon open to early, the guy is never going to develop."
But when Smith did get on the field as a defender, his potential was immediately apparent. He might not have been consistent — he intercepted the first pass his way against the Bengals, then got beat for a long touchdown just a few minutes later to let Cincinnati back in the game — but the possibilities were exciting.
"You can see how fast he's coming back, and the plays he's starting to make," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "That's only going to continue to go up. From a schematic standpoint, he's not out there thinking what his job is anymore. He understands. He knows what to do, and now he's able to diagnose and recognize formations, [understand] down and distance, and make plays."
Smith says his life away from football is pretty boring these days. He goes home, studies his playbook, plays some video games, falls asleep, then returns to work. Admittedly, he's still adjusting to life on the East Coast, and he feels life moves at a much slower pace than the California neighborhood where he grew up.
"The speed limit is only 50 mph out here!" Smith said. "This is got to be the slowest driving state in the world!"
Months ago, a quote like that would have set off a ton of alarm bells and inspired visions of Smith racking up expensive speeding tickets. But Smith just laughs. If he can't drive fast, he'll just have to play fast. He's a darn good football player, and he likes the fact that people can focus on that once again instead of everything else.