OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Torrey Smith knew he would be drafted. It was only a matter of when and which team would pick the speedy wide receiver.
His teammate at the University of Maryland, LaQuan Williams, also a receiver, wasn't so sure. Before the 2011 NFL draft, the two friends would work out, play pickup basketball together and converse about the ongoing labor dispute and what it meant for them.
Williams was worried about his future as a professional football player, his lifelong dream. Doubts crept into his mind.
The draft came and went. Smith was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the second round. Williams' name went unannounced. Then the lockout persisted, keeping Williams from having the option of signing as an undrafted free agent with an NFL team. The longer the lockout lasted, the more Williams worried about whether he'd have a chance to make an NFL roster in 2011.
But one person never gave up faith in Williams. His friend, Torrey.
"Torrey was one of the guys that was keeping my hopes up, keeping me focused," Williams said. "He was telling me to keep working out and that I would get my shot. He was there standing in my corner, keeping me positive."
Different paths, same destination
Smith exploded to the tune of 1,055 yards and 12 touchdowns during his redshirt junior season at Maryland.
A few draft analysts ranked Smith the third-best wideout in the 2011 draft, behind A.J. Green and Julio Jones. On draft day, the Ravens selected Smith with the 58th overall pick in the second round. He was the fifth receiver selected behind Green (Cincinnati), Jones (Atlanta), Jonathan Baldwin (Kansas City) and Titus Young (Detroit).
It was a great position for the rookie as he had veteran wideouts Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason to learn from during off-site workouts during the lockout. While being away from team facilities was frustrating for all rookies, Smith at least knew he had a job when players were eventually able to report to camp.
Williams wasn't as fortunate. His collegiate career at Maryland began with promise. He was named to the Sporting News' ACC all-freshman team after catching 15 passes for 217 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2007. But a foot injury sidelined him for the majority of 2008. In 2009, Williams caught only 10 passes for 99 yards but did score his first career touchdown. In his final season, Williams caught just six passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
So when the lockout came, Williams was nervous. While he waited, Williams held a part-time job at a Sherwin-Williams store in Washington and considered joining the military so he could provide for his girlfriend and baby daughter.
Little did Williams know that someone had taken notice of his film. Ravens assistant special teams coach Marwan Maalouf saw a tape of his special teams play during his senior season at Maryland, where Williams totaled 12 special teams tackles, two blocked punts, and a forced fumble. Maalouf then talked with Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg about bringing Williams in. Rosburg liked what he saw and decided Williams would be worth the invite.
"Any time you're looking at college receivers, you want to see how they play at receiver," Rosburg said. "LaQuan didn't get a lot of exposure that way. But we did see him at special teams and we found his reps at special teams, which are sometimes not easy to find. He showed us some qualities and thought not only he could be a good special teams player but showed qualities that we thought he could be a good receiver."
When free agency resumed after the lockout ended, Williams received one offer - from the Ravens. Smith said he and Williams talked about the possibility of the two playing together in Baltimore. For it to come to fruition made it better.
"When I was drafted there, we were talking afterwards," Smith said. "He was like, 'I just hope I get a shot.' I told him I hope you get to Baltimore some way. For him to be here, it's surreal."
Proving his worth
When training camp opened in the NFL, teams were allowed to carry up to 90 players. This gave teams extra bodies to help accelerate practices since there was no offseason preparation.
While more undrafted free agents signed with teams during training camp, it was projected this would be a season where many of them wouldn't be able to latch onto a team. Williams missed that memo. The Ravens had just released Mason, which left them thin at receiver. Kick return specialist David Reed was banged up with a wrist injury.
It was a perfect opportunity for Williams to showcase abilities that may have been overlooked or overshadowed in college.
The Baltimore native wasted no time on the field. In the Ravens' first preseason game against Philadelphia, he caught three passes for 46 yards in a 13-6 loss. The next week against Kansas City, Williams ran back two kickoffs for 61 yards and caught a 38-yard pass.
In a 34-31 comeback win over Washington in the third preseason game, Williams returned a punt 38 yards to help set up the game-winning drive. At that point, he'd done enough to go from working part-time at a paint store to making the Ravens' 53-man roster.
Living the dream
Despite Williams' stellar preseason, there was still a shadow of doubt he would be on the outside looking in. The Ravens brought in veteran Lee Evans to add experience and a deep threat to the receiving group.
But Smith maintained a positive presence in Williams' ear.
"You already made the team, just make sure you're prepared to stay here," Smith told his friend.
Final cuts were made and Williams was among the 53 on the roster.
"I remember giving him a big man-hug," Smith said. "I'll always remember watching how hard he had to work, being the underdog in the situation."
It was the feel-good story of the Ravens' preseason.
"And here he comes in and makes the team," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a great story. It's going to be fun to see where he goes from here. He's on the team for a reason. He's here to contribute on special teams and on offense."
When the regular season kicked off, both Smith and Williams began the season with limited playing time. But injuries to Evans (ankle) and Reed (shoulder) moved the two former Terrapins into consistent roles on the offense.
Smith has excelled in three starts, highlighted by a memorable performance against St. Louis during which he caught five passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns. His three touchdowns came on his first three receptions as an NFL receiver.
Williams has worked in the slot as the team's third receiver. He's caught two passes - the biggest coming against the Jets on a third down that kept a drive alive and the ball away from a New York team clamoring for a comeback.
But what's unique for the two receivers, teammates and friends is where they are and where they were a year ago. In College Park, the two were attending position meetings, practices and leaning into the same huddle each Saturday.
A year later, the two are practically doing the same - attending positional meetings and workouts but listening to Joe Flacco call plays inside the Ravens' huddle.
"Now we're playing with the big boys," Smith said.