Two years ago, wide receiver LaQuan Williams was an undrafted free agent coming into Ravens training camp, getting advice and mentorship from former Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin on how to impress coaches and showcase his skills.
Williams was fighting for a spot on the team either as a receiver or a return specialist, but with a thin receiving corps — Derrick Mason had just been released — and kick return specialist David Reed injured, chances were in Williams' favor.
When final cuts came, Williams found his name on the 53-man roster thanks to his kick return abilities and Boldin's advice. Now, entering his third training camp, Williams' role has somewhat reversed. Though he's still fighting for a roster spot, Wiliams has taken a few opportunities to help out the rookies, like Boldin did for him in 2011.
"When they come up, ask questions, I throw a little bit of knowledge here and there to them," Williams said. " 'Make sure you hot tub, cold tub, keep drawing out your playbook, make sure you stay focused on your playbook' — little stuff like that."
That doesn't mean Williams is guaranteed to make the team, though. Just like in past seasons, Williams doesn't have a definite spot on the team, especially with many young receivers vying for a spot, but he has found limited playing time as a return specialist — something he hopes will work in his favor again this season if receiving doesn't work out.
"[We're] young, fast, all of us competing, so it's going to be fun to see how it turns out," Williams said.
During Thursday's camp, Williams was taking snaps with the second team, while Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss and Torrey Smith — Williams' good friend and teammate at Maryland — were the main targets.
A couple first- and second-year players, most notably Deonte Thompson and Tommy Streeter, are looking to fill the up-for-grabs No. 4 receiver slot over Williams, so Williams has had to maintain a more serious mindset than he had during his first training camp in 2011.
Smith is quick to point out Williams' potential value with the Ravens this season.
"He's a great receiver, and I think, obviously, given the opportunity, he can go out there and perform," Smith said. "People forget that when we played the Steelers a couple of years ago [in 2011], LaQuan was the third receiver, and he made two clutch catches on the [game-winning] drive for us. Obviously, he can make big-time plays in the right situations."
Williams was a Ravens fan as a child, being a Baltimore native and staying close to home while playing at Maryland, and during that first camp, he was at a loss for words on how to describe the experience.
"It was an odd feeling," Williams said. "I was playing for my hometown team, my favorite team, but then it was the feeling that I got to come out and perform because I want to be in the NFL, I want to make the team. It was on both spectrums."
The second year, he said, was still surreal. This year, it's all business.
"Every day I feel like I have to come out and prove myself," Williams said. "That's with anyone — you have to come out and prove yourself, [a] 'what can you do for me now' kind of business. The only difference is I know what to expect. Going in with more knowledge, know how to take care of my body — that's the only difference."
And in part, he has Smith to thank. Smith and Williams have been teammates since their days with the Terps and have become each other's supporter during tough workouts and the ups-and-downs of a football season.
"He's like my brother," Williams said. "We're real close. If we see each other down, we push each other, we get each other through our hard points. We help each other through all of it. Even throughout the season, the ups and downs, the body aching, being sore, wanting to give up, our bodies wanting to quit on us, just talking to each other, just pushing each other through."
Smith agreed: "He was in my wedding party. That's my guy. He worked his tail off this offseason when we trained that month that we had off in between camp down in Miami."
And after Boldin and Smith have offered their help and support, Williams has sought to do the same. During camp this year, he's helped younger players as much as he can, and in 2012, he took his mentorship off the field when he founded the LaQuan Williams Foundation.
His foundation provides structured programs for Baltimore youth and has been able to give back to the city through that as well as the Police Athletic League, of which he took part as a child.
Baltimore's PAL attended training camp recently, and Williams was excited to meet and talk with the kids after practice.
"I was one of the PAL kids. I grew up at a PAL center, [Craig] Singletary was one of my PAL instructors, so it's a great feeling being in the community and seeing these kids, and now I'm able to give back to them."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun