Jimmy Smith was standing less than 10 yards away and listening to his head coach field questions from reporters. So when John Harbaugh was asked about the Ravens' second-year cornerback, he flashed a quick smile toward Smith and then answered in a manner one might expect given his audience.
"I expect greatness from Jimmy Smith but he expects that from himself," Harbaugh said. "Jimmy has worked really, really hard, and again, it's another guy that it's showing in the way he's playing. He is becoming a technician out there in the offseason."
While Harbaugh's answer was predictable under the circumstances, it shouldn't be dismissed as simple coach speak. The Ravens drafted Smith in the first round in 2011, believing he'd develop into the type of shutdown corner that have become a necessity in the pass-happy NFL.
Though his rookie season was marred by an early-season ankle injury, Smith made strides last year that have extended into the offseason where the 23-year-old has been a regular at the team facility and has dropped 15 pounds to improve his speed and movement.
Smith did not participate in last week's offseason team activities because of a personal matter , but he was part of the first-team defense Wednesday and frequently found himself matched up against speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
"I feel like I can get better in every aspect of the game," Smith said. "I don't think I am perfect at any part, so every day, I just go out and work on my technique, my speed, my vision. I am supposed to be good at press [coverage] so I work on that, too. Like I said, every part of my game, I think, can be better."
The Ravens will finish up their voluntary OTAs on Thursday and then hold their mandatory veteran mini-camp next week. The workouts are invaluable for second-year players like Smith, who missed out on a typical NFL offseason last year due to the extended lockout.
"I think this helps out tremendously, because we didn't get this last year," Smith said. "Rookies, last year, kind of got thrown in the fire. This time, we get to learn the defense a lot more, get the plays down, get a feel for everything — the tempo, the speed. So I think it helps, especially our class, out a lot this year."
When training camp starts late next month, Smith's battle with Cary Williams to start opposite Lardarius Webb figures to be one of the Ravens' primary camp storylines. While Williams played well last year in starting every game, he had February surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip.
So while Smith was running up and down the field Wednesday , Williams primarily watched from the sidelines, holding his helmet and offering instruction and encouragement to the other cornerbacks.
Williams did participate in some individual drills and he's progressed enough in his recovery to believe he'll be full go by the start of training camp.
"It is frustrating, especially when you see the guys out there that you have been sweating and working hard with, guys you came up with in this organization like Lardarius Webb, Danny Gorrer and Jimmy Smith and even the new addition, Corey Graham who I consider my friends and great teammates," said Williams last week. "You want to get out there and compete with those guys and you want to show those guys what you can do, that you can still contribute. You don't lose your competitive nature just because you're injured. It actually makes you more hungry."
For his part, Smith said he's not concerned who will start because he knows both he and Williams will occupy key roles. He's continued to lean heavily on Webb and Williams in learning the defense and his responsibilities. Smith and Williams were side-by-side Wednesday during one stoppage in the workout, discussing particular assignments.
"I look up to them a lot because they have been in the league for a little while, a couple of more years than I have," Smith said. "I take little parts of their game and add it to my game and listen to what they say."
Smith says that he has paid attention to his movement and conditioning. After dropping 15 pounds, his weight is down to 201, and he feels that will improve his quickness laterally and in his breaks and back-peddle.
"People are fast up here," Smith said. "That's the one thing I really took from last year is that speed really kills up here. That is something I have been working on."
Smith was selected with the 27th overall pick in 2011 out of the University of Colorado, falling that far in the draft largely because of questions about his character and maturity. Off the field last year, he was a model citizen according to all accounts, and didn't provide any ammunition for some of his many pre-draft critics who suggested he'd struggle to handle the NFL lifestyle.
On the field, he looked, at times, like a typical rookie corner, while also showing flashes of his talent and big-play ability. He missed almost all of the first five games because of a high ankle sprain he sustained while covering the first kickoff of the season. He was worked in slowly upon his return, starting three games during the regular season and registering 18 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defended.
But Smith also grew more comfortable as the season wore on and his acrobatic interception and 39-yard return in the fourth quarter of the Ravens' AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots provided a glimpse to his potential.