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Jimmy Smith is prepared to step in wherever the Ravens need him on defense

Anquan Boldin bellowed advice from the sideline to Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, delivering a sage last-second tip that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo would be throwing the football in his direction.

Smith nodded affirmatively before matching wide receiver Miles Austin stride for stride, turning his head and batting down a deep sideline pass during the third quarter of the Ravens' 31-29 victory last Sunday.

Now that starting cornerback Lardarius Webb has been placed on injured reserve with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the Ravens will need Smith to duplicate the speed and technique he has displayed at times this season.

Smith will be under heavy scrutiny on Sunday against the Houston Texans when he becomes a regular starter for the first time.

"Jimmy will be ready," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "We can't sit here and decipher who's going to do what and when they're going to do it. Jimmy knows his time is now. So, he's got to play. You got to be a grown man in this league."

Drafted in the first round last year with the 27th overall pick, Smith represents the NFL prototype for a shutdown cornerback. Big, strong and fast at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Smith's accomplishments have yet to mirror his potential.

The Ravens have seen glimpses of his potential throughout the season while he operated as the nickel back.

In 18 career games and three starts, Smith has recorded 34 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass deflections.

"Jimmy Smith's got great physical tools," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. "Ultimately to me, he's a press corner. Sometimes, you can't play press every snap in the NFL. He hasn't been terrible, but he's not quite been the player I thought he had a chance to be coming out of the draft. I would say his ability at this point is better than his production."

While Smith has 4.42 speed in the 40-yard dash, a 36-inch vertical leap and bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times at the NFL scouting combine two years ago, the California native hasn't provided consistency and is prone to penalties.

Smith leads the defense with five penalties this season. He committed three penalties against Dallas, including encroachment, pass interference and defensive holding in the second half after replacing Webb.

Opposing quarterbacks have found success throwing in Smith's direction 24 times, completing 15 of them. That includes a 49-yard pass to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson in the second game.

In college, Smith drew comparisons to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nnamdi Asomugha and allowed only 11 completions in man coverage during his junior and senior seasons combined with only one for a first down.

"I've been working hard," Smith said. "I took this offseason to really hone in on my skills and technique. I feel like just being a confident player, I'm ready.

"I think I've grown, but everybody knows I've got a lot of growing still to do as a young player. But I think I've taken some steps in the right direction."

That includes how Smith has conducted himself off the field, avoiding trouble after character questions surrounded him prior to the draft two years ago.

Smith lives a quiet existence in the Baltimore suburbs near team headquarters, playing video games and hanging out with his teammates and friends.

Red flags were raised about Smith heading into the draft. This included failed drug tests, a pair of alcohol-related violations and an arrest for third-degree assault. Those issues, which occurred early in his career at Colorado and didn't interrupt an All-Big 12 conference career, haven't followed him to Baltimore.

"As a person, I've been growing since college," said Smith, who finished his career with 183 career tackles, 18 pass deflections and three interceptions. "It's always a work in progress, but have you heard my name be called one time? I've been doing OK at that."

Against the Cowboys, Smith tied a career-high with seven tackles. That included one for a 7-yard loss where he decked wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Bryant did most of his damage against Cary Williams, catching 13 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns.

And Smith anticipates the Texans, whose top wide receivers are Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, targeting him early and often to test his mettle.

"Absolutely, I'm a second-year corner," Smith said. "They're definitely going to attack me, but I've got to strap it on and be ready. We definitely have our hands full with these receivers."

As a rookie, Smith had 18 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass deflections. And he had an acrobatic interception of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC championship game.

Now, the Ravens need Smith to play at an even higher level.

"I expect him to play really well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I have tremendous confidence in Jimmy Smith, we all do. Jimmy's got tremendous confidence. He's here for a reason. He's talented, he works hard. He'll play well."

Smith spent this offseason dropping weight, getting noticeably leaner from his rookie season.

His goal was to upgrade his speed, lateral mobility, backpedal and change of direction skills after missing four games as a rookie with a high-ankle sprain suffered in his first NFL game.

"From one year to the next, it makes a whole lot of difference from the rookie year to the second year," fullback Vonta Leach said. "Jimmy's played a lot more football now. He's growing up and he's going to step up into that starter's role. He's applied himself."

Now, Smith wants to justify the investment the Ravens have made in him. Smith is signed to a four-year, $7.46 million rookie contract that includes a $3.92 million signing bonus.

"Once you get drafted, you want to prove what you've got," Smith said. "You want to prove to everybody that you belong. It [stinks] that my opportunity came at a time when another player was hurt, but, at the same time, you've got to step up and show what you've got."

awilson@baltsun.com

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