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Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith ready to improve on 2013 season

Daryl Smith just smiled and shrugged off the question.

Asked recently about being the replacement last year for iconic Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Smith stayed true to his low-key personality. He doesn't focus on such comparisons, instead directing his attention to the coming season. The Ravens are scheduled to hold their first full-team practice of training camp July 24.

"I never really did think about it until [Lewis] was brought up in a setting like this," Smith said after the Ravens' final minicamp practice in June. "Just going out and doing what I've been doing, and that's it. I didn't concentrate on anything else but making my plays and picking up the defense and playing ball."

During his first season with the Ravens, Smith's production was superior to that of Lewis in his final few years. Lewis retired last year after 17 seasons that included two Super Bowl victories and a pair of NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Smith established himself in the middle of the defense as the leader in tackles with 123, along with a career-high five sacks and three interceptions, but the results left him unsatisfied. The Ravens finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time in five years.

"We did some good things, but ultimately we're out here to win, and we did not win enough to get to the playoffs," Smith said. "But we definitely have some things to build on and look forward to that. ...

"A lot of us are playing together again, and we started to learn each other last year. This year, we'll be able to trust each other more."

Although the team improved to 12th in total defense and scoring defense, and 11th in rushing defense, the Ravens and Smith displayed signs of wear late in games. The Ravens were ranked 30th in fourth-quarter defense, surrendering an average of 8.4 points and being outscored 134-115 in the fourth quarter last season.

"You can look down at all the stats and everything," said Smith, who played almost every defensive snap in 2013. "We played good in different spots. We started slow, kind of finished strong a little bit. Then at times we would just do the opposite.

"It's a number of things that we've talked about and that we've addressed and that we've got to work on. We've got a whole training camp to do that and look forward to it."

The Ravens rewarded Smith for stabilizing the defense by signing him to a four-year contract in March that's worth up to $16.1 million and includes a $3.5 million signing bonus. Smith played his first season with the Ravens under a one-year, $2.125 million, prove-it contract.

"Daryl did a great job, everything expected and more," coach John Harbaugh said. "We knew he was a really good player. We thought he would play well for us, but all the intangibles, too.

"You just don't really know a guy until you have him. He played every snap for us on defense, and that is quite an accomplishment in and of itself. He played at a high level."

A native of Albany, Ga., whose nickname is "Buck," Smith became known around the Ravens last year for his businesslike nature.

Smith spent countless hours studying film and lifting weights. He mentored younger linebackers during and after practice. And the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Smith didn't appear to be overburdened while assuming Lewis' old job as the defensive signal-caller.

"Buck came in from day one and he was just Buck," defensive end Chris Canty said. "He is who he is. He didn't try to be anybody else. He leads in his own way. He's confident in the huddle. He understands this game. He's played at a very high level for a long time. A lot of people might not recognize that, but he is a tremendous football player, and I'm excited to be able to line up with him."

After Smith was hampered by a sports hernia that required surgery in 2012, the Jacksonville Jaguars didn't bring him back. In nine seasons, he led the team in tackles three times and set a franchise record with 1,096 tackles.

Smith went about proving himself again with the Ravens last season.

"He's a very smooth linebacker, very effective, has a good feel for the game, understands the defense and can put himself and other players in position to make plays," Canty said. "I think that's one of the best things that he does, making sure that he coordinates everything and gets everybody set. He just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to be able to make that big play for us."

Smith was a major factor in pass coverage last season. He set the Ravens' single-season record for a linebacker with 19 passes defended and returned an interception of Matt Schaub for a touchdown against the Houston Texans in September.

"Daryl is a good tackler who's definitely still very good against the run," former Philadelphia Eagles scout John Middlekauff said. "Ray [Lewis] wasn't himself the last couple of years, and Daryl really solidified the defense last year. Those weren't easy shoes to fill, and they kind of needed a bridge ... and Daryl was good. The question for them now is, 'How much longer do you have with Daryl?' With an older guy, you're always crossing your fingers and wondering about that."

The Ravens are planning for the future at inside linebacker. They drafted Alabama All-American C.J. Mosley in the first round, and he's regarded as the front-runner to start at weak-side inside linebacker next to Smith. They drafted inside linebacker Arthur Brown, Mosley's primary competition for the starting job, in the second round last year.

"I think it's a great pick, man," Smith said of Mosley, who was selected 17th overall. "[Mosley] has been here working his butt off, and he's definitely got some ability. …

"We [should] definitely build on what we did from last year. We added some pieces and look pretty good. We've got a long way to go, but I definitely think we've got the guys in here to do it, and we're all motivated."

By drafting Mosley, the Ravens have established a potential line of succession for Smith at middle linebacker. When that day arrives will depend largely on whether Smith maintains his high standard from last season and how quickly Mosley progresses.

"They gave me a shot last year, and I want to finish my career here," Smith said. "We definitely made some strides last year, and we all want to win, win a championship."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

Ravens training camp key dates

First full-team practice: July 24

First public practice: July 28 at M&T Bank Stadium

Second public practice: Aug. 4 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

First preseason game: Aug. 7 vs. San Francisco 49ers

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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