For years, fans wondered who would be the man to follow Ray Lewis. It’s a tough act to follow.
Would it be a highly-touted rookie? Would it be somebody with similar explosions of intensity?
Ravens fans saw the answer introduced at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time Thursday night. And he came running out with his head down – no dance, no nothing. It was quite the contrast to Lewis’ screaming, turf-tossing gyrations.
That man is veteran
Smith is nothing like Lewis in terms of bravado. He’s quite content staying out of the spotlight, as he did for the first chapter of his career.
But much like the Ravens’ retired defensive general, Smith has taken the reigns of the middle of the defense, let his pads to some yelling and shown strong leadership.
Smith has quietly and quickly shown he’s ready for the job of taking over for Lewis. Yet he hates talking about it.
Asked if he realizes the magnitude of replacing the 17-year heart and soul of the Ravens, Smith politely said. “No, I’m not really getting into that question.”
Asked if he feels honored by it, Smith said, “Definitely, but I don’t really think about all that stuff.”
Asked if he admired Lewis from afar, Smith said Lewis was one of the guys he watched, then also named former Buccaneer Derrick Brooks and Charger Junior Seau.
Finally, he broke down.
“Ray is going to be known as probably the greatest linebacker to play this game,” Smith said. “You really can’t replace that. Everything he did, everything he meant to this organization … [I’m excited to] just come in and put in work, and I’m hoping to be a part of the team’s success.”
In some ways, Smith was the Jacksonville Jaguars’ version of Lewis. He even wore No. 52.
Smith played there for nine years and became their all-time leading tackler (678). Yet while Lewis went to 13 Pro Bowls and captured television cameras and fans across the world, Smith went relatively unnoticed in Jacksonville.
Smith didn’t go to a single Pro Bowl. He isn’t featured on any national commercials. The camera found him often, but only when he was hitting somebody else.
The major reason is Smith’s personality. The other is because he was on Jaguars team that wasn’t known for its defense and went to the playoffs just twice during his time there.
Head Coach John Harbaugh has done nothing but rave about Smith since he arrived. When Smith walked away from the microphone after fielding questions last week, Harbaugh uncharacteristically said to reporters, “What a guy, huh? Are you guys impressed with him?”
“Daryl is a pro. I’d say he is a consummate pro in a lot of ways. He doesn’t say a lot, because he’s just about business,” Harbaugh went on to say. “I really believe [he’s] one of the most underrated defensive players in football over the last eight, nine years. We feel pretty fortunate that he’s here right now.”
Smith’s run in Jacksonville came to an end after a groin injury held him out for almost the entire year. Despite the Jaguars being out of the playoff chase, he still fought back to get on the field for the final two regular-season games.
Smith became a free agent this offseason and didn’t get much interest right away. The Ravens signed younger inside linebacker Rolando McClain, but he suddenly retired after another arrest. Smith visited Baltimore the day before the Ravens went to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl victory.
It was upon that visit that Smith knew Baltimore was the place for him. He was impressed with the team’s expectation of winning. Smith said it was tough to explain, but just felt right.
“They’re the champs,” Smith said. “I know it’s going to take so much more work to get back there, but I want to be a part of that. This team has been winning ever since I can remember.”
Since joining Baltimore, Smith has done nothing but impress.
Harbaugh said Smith was calling out defensive plays in his very first practice. Quarterback
Outside Linebackers Coach Ted Monachino, who coached the defensive line in Jacksonville, said Smith is as quick as he was five years ago. And that’s just physically. Smith’s mental game sets him apart.
"He’s ahead of the game – a lot like a linebacker we had here for a long time,” Monachino said.
Smith’s been a beast on the field so far. In his first game as a Raven in Tampa Bay, he logged five tackles and a pass deflection in just a quarter of work. Harbaugh said there “wasn’t one negative aspect of his performance.”
“He’s going to be a very big part of our defense this year,” Harbaugh added.
Smith followed that game up with six tackles and another pass deflection versus Atlanta, then registered his first sack (for a loss of 11 yards) Thursday night against Carolina. He’s been all over the field.
“He’s way better than advertised,” inside linebacker
Smith has already taken a leadership role too. Bynes said he and Smith, Baltimore’s two starting inside linebackers, already communicate with each other like they’ve been playing together for a long time. The two spend a lot of time together studying their opponents.
Smith has been coaching the younger players, especially second-round draft pick
“He has a lot of knowledge and insight that I don’t have as a rookie,” Brown said. “He just picks up little reads, little tips that give him a lead on a play. I don’t see those things yet. His willingness to share that, it helps our team out and us as individuals. That’s what I appreciate about him.”
Leadership, smarts, productivity, toughness; they’re traits long displayed at inside linebacker in Baltimore. But Smith – who switched to jersey No. 51 to leave Lewis’ 52 unclaimed – isn’t suddenly doing those things because Lewis used to.
“Daryl just does what Daryl does,” Bynes said. “That’s the thing that Ravens fans and everybody has to understand, is that the next guy that comes in is going to be different. He’s a totally different guy than Ray. He’s not as rambunctious, not that kind of guy. He’s Daryl.”