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Jimmy Smith is reluctant to heap praise on his rookie season.
He brings up the ankle injury that sidelined him for the first half of the year, and the times he got beat for touchdowns.
Smith had plenty to celebrate from last year – like his key interception in a Week 11 win over Cincinnati.
But the cornerback’s focus is on what he needs to improve.
“The season was OK,” Smith said after a recent offseason workout. “I kind of survived off of athletic ability.”
The Ravens’ 2011 first-round pick is big (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), fast and athletic, with natural skills to develop into a premier defender.
He came into the NFL with all the tools of a shutdown cornerback.
And he knew it.
“Before the season, I was like, ‘I can do this. I can compete with anybody,’” Smith said.
Then he got hurt on the season’s opening kickoff and hardly played in the first nine games. Watching from the sidelines during that time was frustrating, but Smith now calls the injury a “blessing” because it exposed him to the “raw side of the game.”
When his ankle healed and he got more playing time in the second half of the season, Smith had a steep learning curve.
That showed at times, as the Ravens gradually worked Smith into the defensive rotation. The toughest outing came during a 34-14 loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football, where Smith started in place of hobbled cornerback Lardarius Webb and was targeted by quarterback Philip Rivers, who finished the game with 270 passing yards and a touchdown.
“You get out there and you get embarrassed because you don’t know things,” Smith said. “It was kind of a reality check I guess.”
The game against San Diego served as a wake-up call for Smith, giving him motivation heading into his second NFL season.
“In a sense it was good for me because I think I’m great at corner,” Smith said. “But going out there and getting beat by San Diego, getting beat by Cleveland a few times, those plays, those little things kind of slapped me in the face and let me realize that it’s not all about athletic ability.”
That realization has Smith focusing on the mental aspect of the game this offseason.
He’s been participating in the team’s voluntary conditioning program since it started in April, capitalizing on an opportunity he didn’t have last year because of the lockout.
The most critical time for Smith during the program has come in the meeting rooms, where he’s picked up on the intricate elements of the defensive playbook.
“Having all of this offseason is going to help me further my football awareness, my IQ on the field,” Smith said. “Now we’re going over the little details that I didn’t really get to go over last year because I was kind of thrown into the fire after my ankle. I was learning on the fly, but this year I get to take a step back and learn everything and then go put it to work.”
With a year of experience behind him and the time to get a better grasp on the defense, Smith and his teammates have elevated expectations for what he might accomplish this season.
“He can make a huge step,” Webb said. “With his talent, his knowledge, I think he’s going to be a Pro Bowl corner coming up next year.”
Before Smith gets his name into the Pro Bowl conversation, he’ll first have to win a starting job next to Webb. Smith will compete with five-year veteran Cary Williams for the No. 2 cornerback spot.
Williams started all 16 games for the Ravens last season and signed a second-round franchise tender for the 2012 season. The Ravens are also trying to work out an extension for him, showing their long-term interest in keeping him in Baltimore.
With Webb and Williams already established corners, the secondary is crowded, and Smith could potentially go into the season as the team’s No. 3 cornerback.
If that does happen, Smith still anticipates getting plenty of playing time because the Ravens often have three cornerbacks on the field to match up against pass-heavy offenses.
“We’re going to have a heated battle this offseason,” Smith said. “That’s the best part of it. We’re out there competing with each other but it’s all love at the end of the day because we know that me, Cary and Webby are going to be out there on the field, point blank. It’s just that we’re competing to be the best on the team.”
Smith has a leg up on Williams right now, as Williams is working his way back from offseason hip surgery. Williams reported for voluntary workouts earlier this week, but is still not 100 percent recovered.
Once Williams gets back in the mix, Smith expects the competition for the starting job to heat up.
“When he comes back I know he is going to be ready to go,” Smith said.
But right now Smith’s focus is on himself, and looking to build off a rookie season where he had 20 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defended. He added another interception in the playoffs, making a highlight-reel play in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship to give the Ravens a chance at the comeback.
Plays like the interception against New England provided flashes of what Smith could have in store for future seasons, and he shares Webb’s hope for what the Ravens’ secondary could eventually become – as long as they’re up to the task.
“Personally, I think we could be the best secondary in the league,” Smith said. “That’s just my personal opinion, but obviously it takes a lot of work. I still have a long ways to go, and as a secondary we’ve got a long ways to go.
“But I think the talent is there and I think the drive and the ambition for all of our corners is there.”