Seahawks rookie Tye Smith is learning the finer points of the cornerback position, particularly the ability to locate the ball in the air, from the best teacher he could have, Richard Sherman.
RENTON — Practice had just ended and cornerback Richard Sherman walked with his protégé, rookie Tye Smith, to an empty field.
They brought along a quarterback, and for the next several minutes, Smith turned his back, sprinted like he was covering an imaginary receiver and snapped his head around to find the pass. Off to the side, Sherman offered feedback.
In the micro sense, Sherman was working with Smith on tracking the trajectory of a pass, something Smith had struggled with that day.
One of Sherman’s strengths is his ability to find the ball in the air and make a play on it. His precision in those awkward moments comes close to mystifying some of Seattle’s young defensive backs.
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Smith has stayed close to receivers this preseason, but he has looked uncomfortable locating the ball. In practice that day, Smith shadowed receiver B.J. Daniels down the sideline, but he didn’t get his head turned and Daniels made an acrobatic catch.
“I was in position,” Smith said. “I’ve just got to turn my head around quicker and locate the ball. That’s the play we were working on after.”
Just as important is what was happening in the macro sense. Sherman, one of the great minds at his position, a refined master of the cornerback craft, was working with his apprentice in an effort to strengthen Seattle’s cornerback bloodline.
Smith, a fifth-round pick this year, has been one of the most interesting players to watch this preseason because of what he represents. He is the next project in a long line of cornerbacks that has been built on the shoulders of non-pedigreed players.
In the last six years, the Seahawks have never drafted a corner higher than the fourth round. More than half the teams in the league have drafted corners in the first round during that stretch, and only one other team, the Carolina Panthers, has also failed to draft a corner in the first three rounds.
The Seahawks’ gamble, if it can be called that anymore, is on their ability as talent evaluators and coaches. They believe they can find the hidden treasure in the antique store and flip it into a prized commodity.
It happened with Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell. And the bet with Tye Smith is that the Seahawks can do it again, shaping another raw player into a legitimate NFL corner.
“Without great corner play, it’s hard to play our style of defense,” said Seahawks assistant coach Rocky Seto. “Really. They’re invaluable.”
It was hard to watch Sherman and Smith on that empty field and see the moment as anything but a larger representation of what has led the Seahawks to this point, and what will have to happen to keep them there: evaluating the right players, teaching them a unique and intricate system and developing them by way of coaches and veteran players.
The Seahawks teach their corners a technique called the step-kick, and until he showed up for rookie practices in May, Smith had never heard of it. What he knew, what he had done in college, ran counter to the patience the Seahawks teach their corners at the line.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard.
Predictably, Smith struggled. It might not be fair to say he looked lost, but he looked uncertain. When a receiver gave “foot fire” — chopping their feet or juking — he stuttered or motored backward instead of holding his ground.
In his time off this summer, Smith took his team-issued iPad home to North Carolina and watched clips of Sherman and former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell, whom teammates called a technician.
Smith studied their stances, their footwork, their patience. He practiced the technique at home and sent Sherman video.
“He’s able to play faster than a lot of these guys,” Sherman said. “He’s able to translate what he did in practice to the game field, and that’s the toughest transition for a lot of college players and a lot of young guys.”
It wasn’t the first time Smith had used Sherman as a textbook. Smith asked his position coach at Towson to compile clips of the NFL’s taller press corners. What he picked up from Sherman then was what he is still learning from him now: his ability to make plays in the air.
“Tye’s freshman year, there were a lot of times he was in position, but he wouldn’t always come up with the play,” said Derrick Johnson, the cornerbacks coach at Towson.
“Sometimes he would be in perfect position, and the receiver would make a good catch. Even all the way through his junior year, there were plays like that.”
By Smith’s senior year, Johnson said, every contested pass ended up on the ground.
“That ability to finish is something he picked up from Sherman,” Johnson said.
The Seahawks drafted Smith with an eye toward the future. They signed veteran free agent Cary Williams this offseason to replace Maxwell, but Williams is 30 and not a long-term answer.
Smith could be that answer, but it will be a process to get there, just like it was for all the corners before him.