Smith stepping forward in Ravens' QB race

OWINGS MILLS -- With his helmet on a swivel, Troy Smith identified his target, planted his cleats and delivered a tight spiral into the waiting fingertips of rookie wide receiver Justin Harper for a touchdown.

As the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback lofted the football behind two defensive backs to hit Harper in stride during a Wednesday passing camp, it was a prime example of the improvement the former Heisman Trophy winner has displayed this offseason in making a viable bid for the starting job.

With first-round draft pick Joe Flacco absent due to an NFL-NCAA rule and former starter Kyle Boller having a rough day with batted passes and inaccuracy, Smith took advantage of the opportunity as he operated the first-team offense for the majority of the snaps.

Smith had his moments, especially in contrast to Boller's shakiness, but also uncorked some intermediate and deep throws that lacked ideal timing and zip.

"Troy had a good practice," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He was sharp. He competed. He had a good time.

"Troy is a leader. Anytime you've won the Heisman Trophy, anytime you've been in a national championship game, you obviously know how to lead an offense and lead a team." For the compact former Ohio State star, there are few concerns about his intangibles. He brings a definite swagger into the huddle.

Where the Ravens are seeing growth in Smith's development from his rookie year is in his leadership and knowledge of the offense.

"He's taken more of a leadership role, he has an abundance of confidence," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "But sitting down for a majority of the year, you start to question what's going on and start to question whether you can play at a high level. The last three games that he played in, the more comfortable he felt. Then, the leadership started to show again. Basically, it spilled over into these minicamps.

"What I like about him is that he's eager to learn. If I did something wrong, he's not scared to come up to me and say, 'Mase, you messed up and let's get it done.' That's what you respect in a player. Not only is he going to go up to the guys that are second and third-stringers, he's going to come to the first-stringers and say, 'Let's get this going.' That's what you want in a guy that is going to be the focal point of your offense."

Smith doesn't lack boldness, a quality that has served him well since his days as an afterthought recruit from Cleveland who fought his way to college football's top individual prize.

"I think he did an admirable job last year, he's just trying to take the next step forward," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I think this thing is wide open and he has a tremendous opportunity to start at quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens."

Standing nearly seven inches shorter than Flacco (6-6, 235 pounds), Smith seems to have dispelled concerns about his lack of stature. "Troy is still improving by leaps and bounds," offensive guard Jason Brown said. "A lot of people try to discredit him because he doesn't have the height of a stereotypical quarterback, but he pulls it off well."

Smith's main pluses are his mobility, pocket awareness and intangibles.

"At all times, I'm going to be a leader," Smith said during a recent minicamp. "I'm going to control the things that I know how to control and I don't worry about, 'May the best man win.'

"I'm not thinking of being No. 2, being No. 1, being No. 3. I'm just thinking about learning this offense as much as I can because that's what it's about."

Smith has drawn particularly high marks for his work ethic, fortifying a new coaching staff's confidence as they try to decide who will start the season-opener Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I think that's a credit to him, the way he works at it," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "He's doing a nice job and just scratching the surface of what he can be someday."

Tight end Todd Heap has noticed some definite differences in Smith after the former fifth-round draft pick entered last season ranked third on the depth chart.

"Obviously, he's more confident and he's got a little bit better ability to lead because he knows what's going on and he's got some experience, so guys can draw from it," Heap said. "Guys can say, 'OK, he's done this a little bit,' whereas last year he was unproven.

"The guy who's going to be out there leading us is going to be the guy that's going to be the most consistent. We've got some guys who are capable of getting the job done."

During the final three games last season with Steve McNair and Boller sidelined with injuries, Smith flashed potential as he completed 40 of 76 passes for 452 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"It helped me a little bit, because now I've got a little taste," Smith said.

Now, the Ravens are looking for Smith to build on that showing as he tries to establish himself under the scrutiny of a quarterback derby.

At this point, he's showing signs of increased readiness.

"To see that Troy is starting to flourish in that role, it's good because when stuff hits the fan, they're not going to look to me to be the calming force," Mason said. "They're looking at the quarterback. It's good to see Troy is showing that type of quality that we need at that position.

"Troy has always thrown a great ball. That's never been an issue with anybody. You just want to make sure that your quarterback makes good decisions. Being able to do it when things are hectic, Troy is able to make the right decision at the right time."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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