A year ago today, the Ravens defense gathered for a standard weekly meeting. As it kicked off, things took a twist. The fresh face in the room stood up, calling everyone’s attention to him.
Though he hardly needed to — he was already a household name for NFL fans — he introduced himself as Roquan Smith and said he planned to raise the standard in Baltimore. That bold proclamation in a town where Ray Lewis once played linebacker could have rubbed his teammates the wrong way.
But Smith was so open and clear-eyed about his vision, those who were there say, that it worked.
The next day, he sprinted at full speed onto the practice field — and it all made sense.
Smith has sprinted onto the field for every practice he’s attended since the Ravens traded second- and fifth-round pick to the Chicago Bears to acquire him at last year’s trade deadline. He’s accumulated 168 tackles in the 17 games he’s suited up in purple and black — a span during which the Ravens’ defense is first in yards per game allowed and points per game allowed.
Smith’s impact, though, goes far beyond his amped-up, cerebral play on the field. His entire presence led to a change. He’s worn the green dot, making him the coaching staff’s designated representative on the defense. He’s filled the locker room with chatter. He’s led pregame speeches. He’s dropped wildly creative quotes in press conferences.
“He came in and brought a different type of energy, a different type of leadership,” safety Geno Stone said. “I feel like he set the tone there [in the meeting], and it shows when he plays.”
After just one year in Baltimore, he’s being likened to legends.
Lamar Jackson called him the team’s Ray Lewis. Marlon Humphrey compared him to Terrell Suggs.
When asked how Smith set the tone during one of the Ravens’ dominant defensive performances, coach John Harbaugh laughed and asked if that was a rhetorical question. Because Smith’s impact has been that powerful, even for those who work closely with him every day.
“It’s one of the all-time great trades that we’ve made,” Harbaugh reflected. “Maybe it was a win-win [situation], but it was definitely a win for us.”
Smith is now the centerpiece of one of the league’s best defenses, a star player at a position that isn’t nearly as valued as it once was. Nevertheless, he has found a way to elevate those around him.
He wasn’t always on this path, though. There was a time when he thought his athleticism and smarts would let him get away with anything — until a coach yanked him from his team and changed everything.
A chance encounter
Even as a sophomore, word of Smith’s potential spread. It reached former Macon County High School football player Ryan McKenzie, then playing for Division III Trinity in Texas. Macon County coach Larry Harold swore to him Smith would be one of the greatest players to come out of the small Georgia town.
So McKenzie was pretty confused when he went home to Montezuma, Georgia, for a game and saw Smith toting a camera rather than wearing a uniform.
Harold, who arrived the year before and convinced Smith not to give up on football, had realized Smith wasn’t focusing enough. Harold wanted to empower young men, former quarterback K’Hari Lane said, but he also didn’t put up with egos. So when some of the players started showing up late to class and their grades started slipping, he knew he had to get their attention — most especially the attention of the star they all followed. So he took the game away from Smith, as well as several others, in the middle of the season with a two-game suspension.
McKenzie stopped Smith as he was about to climb a tower in the end zone to film the game.
“Yo, what are you doing?” McKenzie asked. Smith replied that he had gotten in some trouble.
“I said, ‘Man, you know, great athletes are not just ones that can run around on the field. Greatness is the one who can be a leader inside and out. And this can never happen [again],’ " McKenzie recalled.
Smith came back for the last game of the season and made two interceptions, one he returned for a touchdown, to help send the team to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. Harold later asked Smith why he had acted the way he did since he was overall a good kid. Smith replied that the other players told him he’d never get in trouble because he was a star.
“Coach Harold let him know, look, you’re a little bit different than everybody else here,” Lane said. “Your talent supersedes a lot of the players, but I need your character to do so as well.”
Smith quickly changed his ways. He became an honor roll student at Macon County, followed by a dean’s list student at the University of Georgia. While Smith was still a jokester, he learned there was a time and place, Lane said. He kept things light on the field but also spoke up when necessary.
“It was just me also realizing I didn’t want to be a Macon County legend, a guy who was good at this, good at that, but never really left and never really made much of himself in life,” Smith said. “That was kind of the main thing for me, realizing there’s so much more out there.”
McKenzie eventually joined the Macon County coaching staff Smith’s junior year, after Smith’s recruitment had taken off. He was gaining much-deserved attention, but some of the other players couldn’t understand why they weren’t garnering the same. It hurt Smith to be at odds with any teammates, leading to a heart-to-heart with McKenzie.
Sitting in McKenzie’s truck outside the field house, McKenzie told Smith he had to decide what type of leader he wanted to be, using LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as examples of different styles. James is known for being likable. Bryant is known for holding players accountable.
Now a head coach, McKenzie looks back at that moment and where Smith is now with the Ravens. Yes, Smith has some qualities like Bryant and some like James, but he’s developed his own style. And it’s Smith who McKenzie now uses as an example when he talks to his high schoolers about leadership.
Focused on others
Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen has looked up to Smith since he was an opposing linebacker for LSU. He would watch his tape, and strove to emulate him. But when Smith became a Raven, Queen was impressed by something more than his skills.
“He probably learned everybody’s name in like three or four days — it took me a whole year just to learn everybody’s name,” Queen said.
Stone, who’s been with the Ravens for three years, said Smith often knows the names and details about people in the building Stone has never even met.
It’s a mindset cultivated by the small Southern town Smith grew up in. Lane said you have to know everyone’s name because you never know who knows your aunt or your best friend’s mom.
In a place where Southern hospitality was common, the uniqueness of Smith’s heart showed in the way he always made sure to lift up his teammates around him. McKenzie recalls attending a camp at Tennessee where Smith respectfully declined to work out, saying he had actually come to give the teammates who accompanied him the opportunity to get in front of scouts. Harold said Smith would always take coaches and scouts who came to see him around to check out his teammates.
“He made my job easier,” Harold said. “And it blew me away because he really wanted everybody else, not just himself, to be successful.”
At the University of Georgia, Smith’s approach made a huge difference. Despite being older and in a mentorship role as a defensive graduate assistant who came in during Smith’s sophomore year, Wendel Davis felt the care coming from the younger man in the way Smith always called him by name and checked in on his life.
“It’s great and huge for any organization, any culture,” said Davis, who now works as defensive quality control coach for the Green Bay Packers. “He understands in order for him to be the best that those around him have to be at their best as well. … So he’ll use his voice to help those around him be at their best.”
Smith left after his junior year for the NFL and was once again one of the youngest and least experienced on the Bears’ team. It took him a while to find his voice as a leader, but even so, his innate ability to draw people together showed through.
“All his antics and stuff, that’s just his way of showing he cares,” said DeAndre Houston-Carson, a former Chicago safety who was signed off the Ravens’ practice squad by the Texans this week. “He’s always cracking jokes, but me, personally, he’s always shown confidence in me as a player. When your top dog shows confidence in all the guys out there, it helps.”
While he became more and more of a leader during his time in Chicago, something about Baltimore unlocked him — Smith described it as the “perfect bond” with an organization that accepts him for exactly who he is. When center Sam Mustipher, who joined Baltimore from Chicago this past offseason, saw Smith in a Ravens uniform, the difference was evident.
“I can’t say night and day because he was a leader there in a different way, but you really feel his presence now,” Mustipher said.
Smith is now part of the welcoming committee. Jadeveon Clowney said Smith was the first person who welcomed him in and made him feel like a part of things. Stone said Smith remembers little details about him and his family. Queen said he constantly brightens people’s days and has become a big brother to many.
Part of it goes back to Smith wanting to bring that small-town feel to his new home. But the little details he gathers helps him unlock his “band of brothers” on game days as well.
“A lot of guys play for a lot of different reasons,” Smith said. “Knowing what’s their why and their reason for playing the game the way they play it, I feel like if you can do that, and actually be able to dissect that into every single individual, I believe that’s what makes a great leader.”
Making sure there’s no quiet
Smith’s presence isn’t just felt. It’s very much heard.
“He really never shuts up,” Stone said with a laugh.
Whether he’s chirping opponents or guiding his teammates, Smith’s mouth runs from locker room to field to sidelines. The constant noise is an effective tactic against opponents, said Mustipher, who has played against him in college and on NFL practice squads.
“It puts stress on the offensive side of the ball when there’s no quiet,” Mustipher said.
The way Smith plays is enough to lift up everyone around him. He plays with a violence, an intensity and a passion that guys want to match. His consistency also allows them to do their jobs without having to worry about anything else.
But why lead through actions or through words when you can lead with both?
In Smith’s second season, he took on the responsibilities of the green dot. While usually straightforward, that job can become challenging when opponents move into a hurry-up offense.
Smith not only rolls smoothly through challenges, he’s also elevated what it means to direct the defense, pulling off plays that take perfect communication. It’s hard to run screens against “that guy,” Mustipher said, because he has an “uncanny ability” to recognize formations, motions and shifts.
“And normally when he predicts stuff, he’s normally right,” Mustipher said.
One of the best representations of his elite communication was in Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts, when Smith coordinated a switch with Queen where Smith picked up the tight end for him, leading to a pass breakup.
“We always can work off each other, but in that moment, in the heat of the battle, it’s just so special to do,” Queen said.
Queen’s own game has improved significantly since Smith arrived, and he’s attributed a lot of it to the new teammate patrolling the field by his side. And he’s not the only one. Since Smith arrived in Baltimore, the Ravens defense ranks first in yards per play allowed (4.5); yards per game allowed (283); points per game allowed (14.9); points per drive allowed (1.3); and defensive expected points added per play (0.13), according to TruMedia.
“Actually playing with him and seeing how he prepares, how he treats the game and how he treats practice and just taking my game up a notch, trying to match his vibe if not beat the vibe,” Queen said, “it’s really crazy, honestly, to play with someone like that.”
Filling Ray’s role
The pregame speech means more in Baltimore, where Lewis made an art of it.
That duty falls to Smith now, and his approach is simple: When he gets to the middle of the circle, he clears his mind and lets his heart take the stage. He does some prep work, asking teammates what they feel should be addressed, but mostly he works from feel.
“I take that in, and then I just come from the heart, whatever I’m feeling,” Smith said. “I feel like it goes over well, and the guys understand real, authentic.”
Smith feels authenticity is lacking these days, he says, and strives to be only his true self. His slogan: “Sun sets, no regrets.”
He touches on that theme often in his speeches, but the exact content of those stay between him and the team. It’s easy to see why he has the duty, though, based on his eloquence at the podium and in media scrums. With cameras and mics in his face, he stands calm and collected as he drops colorful quotes filled with brutal honesty that reporters and teammates both appreciate. Whether he’s promising to take over the Dawg Pound and send the Cleveland Browns home with their tails between their legs or telling security “to lock the Bank” until they’re ready to let the Detroit Lions out to play, his teammates know he’s just being “Ro.”
Lane, who heard plenty of Smith’s speeches in his time, is in awe of how far Smith has come since he was preaching in the Macon County huddle; back then, it was mostly repeated clichés.
“One of his famous speeches was, ‘They put their pants on one leg at a time just like we do, so go out there and play, fear no man,’ " Lane said. “He said that almost every game.”
Both his high school coaches give the University of Georgia a lot of credit for developing Smith as a public speaker. They trained him and gave him many opportunities to address the team, the community and the media.
But every player receives some sort of media training. Why did Smith take to it so well?
For one, he’s extremely intelligent, said Davis, who had a front seat to Smith’s career as a Bulldog. Smith also understands he has a platform to share his thoughts, and he is someone who has things he wants to say.
“He wants to make sure he gets his point across,” Davis said.
Lane met up with Smith again in Arizona, where Lane was playing for Arizona and Smith was training for the draft. By then, Smith was an experienced public speaker. One day, he gave a speech at a contact football camp about how he had met patients at a hospital who would give anything to play football. He told the players around him not to take their gifts for granted.
“Now he goes to the hospital and things of that nature and helps those kids,” Lane said. “To see that he’s in that role now where he can visit those kids and be the highlight of the day and the highlight of their lives and share his success with them and their admiration for him, to be able to be in their presence and give them a dream … that’s just a testament to who he is and who he’s grown to be.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Wendel Davis' name.