ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** The Broncos' pass rushers gather early in practice for their individual drills. Quanterus Smith is there, exactly where he needs to be.
At one side is DeMarcus Ware, one of the Broncos' prized offseason pickups, with 117 career sacks to his name in nine previous seasons. Another couple of double-digit sack seasons, and he reaches territory occupied mainly by Hall of Famers. As it stands, Ware is the only player in NFL history with at least 100 sacks who has played less than 10 seasons.
At the other is Von Miller, returning from a season wrecked by a six-game suspension and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But with 35 sacks in 40 career games, he remains regarded as one of the game's elite young pass rushers, and now has Ware opposite him.
Miller is known for peppering responses to media queries with references to "the lab." There may not be a better laboratory in which Smith, a fifth-round pick last year, can learn the science of pass rushing than the one at Dove Valley.
In particular, Ware's emphasis on using hand moves imported from mixed martial arts speaks to Smith.
"It's more with your hands and just going through the tackle instead of trying to get around him (an opposing blocker)," Smith said. "Using your hands and going through him -- (Ware) taught me that. So I'm trying to work on that."
Smith's NFL success will be determined by the moves he develops beyond his speed rush -- particularly his first step to the outside. The result in organized team activities has been an increased confidence when he goes to the inside, which helps keep opposing tackles off balance. Smith has disrupted enough passes from the inside and outside to offer a sign that he can become a multi-dimensional pass rusher.
"If you've got them tight, and they think you're going to go outside, then you can just hit 'em with an inside move," Smith said, "so it helps a lot."
It also helps that he has received the time to learn. Perhaps no player has benefitted more from the absence of the still-rehabilitating Miller from team drills than Smith. He has used organized team activities to cement the confidence in the surgically repaired ligament that he tore during the 2012 season.
"You've just got to play football, get the reps," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Smith got repetitions last summer during training camp and in the preseason games, but it became obvious that the knee was not ready, just nine months removed from the injury.
"I kind of knew towards the end of the last preseason that I really wasn't ready," Smith said. "So I took it as, 'It's going to be a learning (experience). I can get bigger. I can let my knee heal all the way.'"
When the preseason ended, Smith was placed on non-recallable injured reserve, ending his season. He says that his knee was back to 100 percent at "somewhere around" the midpoint of the 2013 season. That made watching the Super Bowl difficult, knowing he was healthy but unable to do anything to help his teammates contain the Seattle Seahawks.
But the season -- effectively a college-style redshirt -- was anything but a lost cause.
"Just doing the training camp, getting the experience of the NFL, was a big help," Smith said. "So I kind of knew what I was coming into this year. So, yeah, I didn't look at it as a disappointment or anything like that. I looked at it as something that can help me."
Smith is bigger now. He said Monday that he is up to 254 pounds, four more than his listed weight. By training camp, he hopes to weigh between 255 and 260 pounds, which will help him at the point of attack on the occasions he does have to defend the run.
"I think it was a good decision to IR him and I've seen great growth both in how he's matured physically as well as gotten healthy," said Head Coach John Fox.
But with ample depth among the pass rushers and defensive ends, Smith looks set for a rotational role once Miller returns, and if injuries strike, he could find a more expansive role. From the early indications, Smith is ready for it.
"He's clearly light years ahead of where he was last year," Del Rio said. "He was trying to fight his way through the injury. Ended up getting that time, which he needed, and he's much better in every facet. He's healthy, he's more mature, more sure of himself, and he's doing a good job so far."