MIAMI — Two years ago, during a few quiet team meetings at the Dolphins' training facility, cornerback Sean Smith remembers joking around with some teammates in a manner that triggered his own laughter and his coach's scowl.
"Sean," the coaches barked. "Pay attention."
"Oh, OK," Smith would say. "My fault."
It wasn't a major deal to him, just like it wasn't a big deal if he showed up at 7:59 a.m. for a meeting at 8 a.m. By his watch, he was early. Not only that, he was a rookie starter — a young prospect who knew his potential.
"When I first came in, I thought everything was funny," said Smith, the first cornerback in Dolphins history to start all 16 games as a rookie. "I laughed at everything. Regardless of how good or bad things were, I was like, 'Whatever.' I just figured I'd go out there, play good and everything would be OK.
"You can't take that approach. You could have your job one day — and then it's gone in the next."
He's different now, he says. And those around him believe it. He has learned some valuable lessons. The good news? He's still a budding stud capable of turning his NFL career into whatever he wants it to be.
Within the past year, Smith has endured enough on and off the field to accelerate his maturation process faster than might have been accomplished otherwise. He moved into a house, settled into a quieter lifestyle and made football a priority.
"Don't forget, Sean left school as a redshirt junior," said his South Florida-based agent, David Canter. "He was 21 years old. Sometimes, it takes a few years to get an understanding of what is expected out of you."
A humbling second season — even if not ultimately a bad one — helped kick him into a different gear after that ego-aiding rookie year. A rough training camp and a few bad preseason games caused coach Tony Sparano to demote him in favor of Jason Allen. Smith didn't regain his job until the season's ninth week.
"I just want the coaches to know that even though I'm young, I don't have a rookie mentality anymore," Smith said. "I'm starting to take things more serious with a more professional approach."
With a full offseason to focus on making sure another demotion wasn't in his future, Smith has entered this training camp looking sharp. Physically, the 6-3 corner looks as strong as ever. He is also moving well.
Most notably, there have not been any whispers at this point, as there were just before his demotion last year, of anyone expressing concerns about his focus and performance.
Cornerback Vontae Davis, who was the Dolphins' first-round pick during the same draft when Smith was the second-round selection, said he actually feels the need to step it up because Smith has raised the bar.
"Right now, I've got to be doing little things, like making sure I'm hydrated in practice," Davis said. "Sean has been really good about all of those things. You can tell he really wants to do something on the field this year."
He's hungry. He's matured. And he's focused. But there's still no denying what Smith needs to do to prove it. In the game before he reclaimed his starting spot, Smith made the first regular-season interception of his career.
He didn't have one for the remaining nine games of the season — despite multiple occasions when he was in position to make a catch but didn't finish.
"I'm not being critical here, but he's got to catch the ball," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said when asked what Smith needs to do to graduate to the next level. "I think that's going to get him to the next level. In my humble opinion last year, if Sean had taken care of the football, he'd be one of those guys (getting Pro Bowl consideration). He's got to finish those kinds of plays off."
It's not as if Smith doesn't have the potential. In 2006, as a redshirt freshman at Utah, he actually spent the first 11 games as a wide receiver. If you go to YouTube, search for "Sean Smith Legendary Interception," and you will be convinced he has the goods.Comment on this story
Unlike last season, Smith has been spending his time doing all of the right things on and off the field to put his career on track for long-term success. Entering his third season, several people noted a more focused effort this training camp. And it's showing up on the field.
"Personally, I think you can just tell from a body language standpoint from last training camp to this one," Canter said. "You'd see if a play wouldn't go his way, there was a lack of comfort. He just seems physically more at ease. He seems like he's having fun."
Now, the fun has been on the field. Not in the meeting room.