CORTLAND, New York — Geno Smith is a changed quarterback.
Puzzled pauses in the New York Jets' huddle have been replaced by commanding playcalls. He's also barking out audibles at the line of scrimmage and reading defenses unlike he did at any point during his rookie season.
For a first training camp practice, Smith certainly performed Thursday like a guy intent on retaining his starting job.
"I think Geno looked better than I've ever seen him," wide receiver David Nelson raved.
With Michael Vick also in camp to push Smith and provide a veteran backup, Smith took the expected 75 percent of the snaps with the first-team offense, and was sharp while completing seven of 10 passes in 11-on-11 team drills.
"The game is slowing down a ton," Smith said.
Sure, it's only one training camp practice, and Smith started quickly last summer, too. But if there really is a competition at quarterback this year, Vick has quite a bit of catching up to do.
"Coming into this year, I'm a lot more confident in my reads and my footwork, and delivering the ball a lot stronger and a lot more accurate," Smith said. "All good signs of progress, but we've got a long way to go — I've got a long way to go."
Smith is coming off an up-and-down rookie season in which he threw 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, but finished with a solid four-game stretch in which the Jets won three times to finish 8-8. He went into the offseason knowing that his hold on the starting job was hardly more than tenuous.
And, it still might not be anything more than that. Not with a still-hungry Vick waiting for an opportunity. But, Smith has the confidence of his teammates — and that goes a long way in establishing yourself as a leader and building an offense in the NFL.
"Just knowing it's his team and knowing that he has what it takes and the confidence," Nelson said. "Last year, he didn't really have a chance to worry about himself because he had a lot of different pieces coming in every week. He had a new offense. He had to learn the playbook. He had to learn adjustments. There was so much being thrown at him.
"Now, that's kind of second-nature to him."
Smith was flattered by Nelson's comments that it's "his" team, but refused to bask in any of it.
"I don't look at it like that," he said. "I love the confidence that my guys have in me. That's what it's all about. I work hard, man. I try to stay a gym rat. I don't let anything else affect me, not even those positive things, because I look at it as, you've just got to keep working and you've got to keep getting better and you can never stay the same."
Coach Rex Ryan praised Smith all offseason, saying the improvements the quarterback has made since he was a rookie competing with Mark Sanchez are clear each time he takes the field.
"This time last year, it's like, 'Man, is this a three-step, five-step, seven-step (drop), what is this?'" Ryan said. "Now it's just automatic. He knows it. He knows this offense and you see it and he's confident."
Vick worked mostly with the second-team offense, as expected, and was intercepted by Jaiquawn Jarrett during team drills. He and Smith frequently talk about life as an NFL quarterback, serving as an invaluable resource to the young player.
"It's very important that Geno understands what it takes to be successful in this league," Vick said. "I've been there before."
Indeed Vick has, especially when he was one of the NFL's most dynamic players early in his career. And Smith recognizes that. While Vick still believes he can be more than just a backup, he has also selflessly and seamlessly taken to the mentor role.
"Every conversation we have, I'm looking up to this guy, I'm learning from this guy," Smith said. "He's an 11-year vet in this NFL, and that's something I can only hope to be, a position I hope to be in one day. A guy like that, you can only learn from. He's willing to help and it speaks volumes about his character."
NOTES: DE Jason Babin signed his two-year deal Thursday after agreeing to terms Wednesday, and is expected to join the team for practice Friday. ... Ryan declared that the Jets are "a zillion miles" ahead of where they were at this time last year. ... Ryan kicked off his news conference by praising Cortland Standard reporter Tom Vartanian, who has lost 120 pounds since last summer. "I know how tough that is," a smiling Ryan said, "even with surgery." A slimmed-down Ryan has dropped at least 120 pounds since having a Lap-Band procedure in March 2010.