Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010 2:00 pm | Updated: 10:24 am, Thu Apr 29, 2010.
By COLTER NUANEZ sports editor
Talent overwhelms all else, and if you display it, the scouts will find you.
Gone are the days when the front of a college football jersey has to read Alabama or Notre Dame or Penn State if a prospect wants to exchange it for a jersey of the NFL variety. These days, if you have NFL aspirations and you display the talent to back it up, you will get your shot.
Former Central Washington University cornerback Courtney Smith is the latest example of such. On Saturday, Smith signed a free agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. His signing was the 29th by a player from a Division II school in 2010 along with an additional five players from D II programs who were taken in the 2010 NFL draft.
He will report to the Ravens’ team headquarters May 6 for rookie mini-camp where he will have an opportunity to earn a rookie free agent contract and a spot on Baltimore’s training camp roster.
Smith was in Lathrop, Calif., with his parents and his trainer Saturday, casually keeping an eye on the draft. He never expected to be one of the 255 names called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over the three-day extravaganza, so when the coverage reached its completion, Smith put his thoughts eslewhere.
“I went outside and was listening to old school music with my trainer,” Smith said. “We were just talking about good times, talking about life. The draft got over, 20 minutes later my agent called me and told me I was headed to Baltimore.”
As soon as Smith got off the phone with the Baltimore powers that be, emotions rushed over him as he realized he would at least get an opportunity to continue to display his rare athleticism.
“I was so up and down that day,” Smith said. “The first thing I did, my mom was getting in the car, and I ran over and grabbed her and let her know. She just started crying and we held each other. It was so surreal, I didn’t know whether to be happy, to cry. As the day went on, I started talking to more and more family and realizing that all my hard work had paid off.”
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound speedster has been training with professional football in his cross hairs since the completion of his senior campaign, but the wheels really started rolling three weeks ago. Baltimore called Smith’s agent, Alvin Nelson, with interest in acquiring Smith’s game film. The entire week leading up to the draft, Smith said Nelson was telling him there was a possibility he would get picked up, but he didn’t know if it would come to fruition.
Like any young player, the thought of playing with one of the most prestigious and feared defensives in all the land has its allure. Baltimore defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano has already been in contact with the former Wildcat, but it is the thought of getting dressed in the same locker as living legends if he makes it to training camp that really gets Smith’s juices flowing.
“A couple of guys from last year’s team were joking about going pro and I said ‘wouldn’t it be crazy to play with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis?’,” Smith laughed. “Now I actually have that opportunity to make that a reality. It is a dream come true.”
Although neither Smith’s contract or roster spot is a guaranteed one, he said he still relishes the opportunity. Versatility, aggressiveness and an overall consistency in his play in two years at Central are what kept the scouts’ attention. More than anything, though, he credited Nelson, whose firm represents four other NFL players, for helping him through the difficult process and sewing up a spot in rookie camp.
Smith started a total of 21 games in his two years at CWU. He accumulated 71 total tackles, four of which were for a loss, and two interceptions. He broke up 12 passes. While none of those numbers may be eye-popping, one number that did turn heads was the one displayed on the stopwatch when Smith ran. The corner has clocked a hand-timed sub-4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash and runs consistently in the 4.4’s. Like the old saying goes, you can’t teach speed and Smith is a prime example.
“He has the strength and the speed to play at the next level, and I think that’s what showed up for those NFL scouts,” said Central Washington head football coach Blaine Bennett. “He is still pretty raw, but he has the attributes they are looking for. He is a low 4.4 guy, and anytime you can run like that, and combine it with strength,it’s pretty impressive.”
Smith’s invite to rookie mini-camp is just the first step in a long process if he hopes to make an NFL roster come opening weekend in November. But nonetheless, getting a look is impressive for someone with relatively limited exposure. Ellensburg has proven to be somewhat of a hot-bed in the past few years, with former quarterback Mike Reilly and former tight end Jared Bronson both getting shots in the league last year. Reilly is still a member of the St. Louis Rams.
Bennett said more than 75 scouts have come to CWU games in his two seasons at the helm. The opportunity for his pupils coupled with the increased visibility it gives his program make scouts a welcome commodity.
“Transfers calling us want to go to a Division II program that wins a lot of games and they want to be able to be seen by NFL scouts,” Bennett said. “We can use those guys as examples, which helps us land transfers and helps us recruit in general.”
While the performance of players helps generate exposure for the program, the internal competition of guys with NFL pedigree breeds confidence and an adequate assessment of what it takes to play among the elite.
“I remember at Central when I first got there (in the fall of 2008), people talking about Mike Reilly, talking about how he might go to the league someday,” Smith said. “I thought he definitely would. But if I can play with Mike Reilly, spring ball, seven-on-seven, and make plays, I knew I could definitely make plays at the next level.”
Central Washington has lost just three games in the previous two seasons, reeling off 11 straight wins en route to a No. 1 ranking in 2009 before being upset in the playoffs. A lack of opportunities in the past help form Smith and his Wildcat brethren into the players they are today.
“All of us have always kind of had a chip on our shoulder at Central,” Smith said. “We went around playing Idaho State, Montana, trying to show we are as good as anyone out there. A lot of us didn’t get shots at bigger schools, so that was kind of our chip the whole time.”
Next week, Smith will again be the underdog, the no name trying to make his own way. There are no guarantees in his future, yet he said he will back down from no challenge and continue to display the talent that has gotten him to this point.
“I was told the punt return spot is open right now, so I’m going to go in there and fight for that and get on the map,” Smith said. “I have every intent to go in there and winning a spot.”