Michael Huff spent his final season with the Oakland Raiders last year primarily lining up at cornerback, forced to cover some of the top receivers in the game.
Although Huff didn't embarrass himself as he started all but two games on the outside because of injuries in the secondary, it wasn't his natural position.
It's an altogether different situation for Huff with the Ravens after he signed a three-year, $6 million contract this offseason to replace Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed. Now, Huff can concentrate strictly on lining up in the middle of the Ravens defense, and he's confident he'll benefit from his cross-training last year.
"Especially playing corner last year, I can see things through a different point of view, a different set of eyes," Huff said. "Now I can see what can hurt the corners in certain defenses. Being a safety, I can make up for that a little bit here and there, and I definitely think playing corner helped me last year. I'm back to safety and just focusing on that."
Huff, 30, is off to a relatively quiet start this preseason, recording five tackles with no interceptions or pass deflections in three games. Absorbing the playbook and learning how to make the defensive calls and adjustments has been the biggest challenge for him so far.
"Michael has bounced around between corner and safety for a number of years, and being able to settle in at safety seems to have helped him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The nice thing is he can back up at corner if you needed it, but he's in the process of learning the defense. He's done a great job with it. He's a smart guy, but his speed has been noticeable. He is a sideline-to-sideline player, excellent man-coverage guy, solid tackler. He's done a really good job."
Range is one of the strong suits of Huff's game.
Growing up in Texas, Huff finished seventh in the nation in the 100 meters in high school and was later a sprinter for the University of Texas' track team.
Huff ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds before the draft in 2006, where he was selected seventh overall by the Raiders, five spots before the Ravens picked defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
There aren't many receivers faster than Huff, who spends his summers in Dallas training with former Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson.
"It helps a lot, especially with disguising," Huff said. "I can line up on that hash and still get to the other hash where I'm supposed to be. Speed is the name of the game, so you always want to keep the speed."
In seven NFL seasons, Huff has 457 tackles, 11 interceptions, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He had a career-high 98 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2010.
However, Huff has never been regarded as a particularly punishing hitter.
"Huff is versatile. He can really run and he has some cover skills," said former Philadelphia Eagles scout John Middlekauff. "With Matt Elam, the Ravens have a true strong safety as a hitter in the box. That should allow a guy like Huff to run around in the back end and match up on the tight end and slot receiver.
"He's not Ed Reed by any means, but he's not a bad fallback option. He's been an above-average starter. With a defense that could have a pretty special front seven with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and good young corners like Lardarius Webb, I think the Ravens can win with Huff. I would call him a very functional starter."
Huff missed an open-field tackle in the Ravens' second preseason game, failing to bring down Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson.
"I think Mike is a solid tackler," Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin said. "I know he missed one on a big guy, and it was really just a matter of him kind of getting his legs, but a lot of guys have fallen off of Steven Jackson's legs. That's something that we'll continue to work on, and I think he'll be a solid tackler for us throughout the season."
Though he hasn't missed many tackles in recent years, Huff says he's made a special point of emphasis on concentrating on the fundamentals of wrapping up and driving through the ball carrier.
"Obviously, I've missed a lot of tackles, mostly in my young days," Huff said. "I missed a lot of tackles then. I've gotten better at tackling. That's one thing you can always work on.
"You can never be a perfect tackler. Obviously, people are going to miss tackles. The main thing is just limiting the ones you miss. With a swarm defense, you can miss a tackle, and your brothers will help you out."
Huff was a relatively inexpensive acquisition for the Ravens after the Raiders cut him rather than pay him $8 million in 2013. Huff carries a $1.35 million salary cap figure for this year, and he's nearly five years younger than Reed, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Houston Texans and remains sidelined after offseason hip surgery.
The Ravens are pleased with their investment so far, and with Huff's business-like demeanor.
"I think what we've seen every week is a steady growth from him," Austin said. "He's a sharp guy. He starts playing a little faster in the system, and then he has an opportunity to make some plays. He's not a vocal guy, he's not a big 'rah-rah' guy, but he commands respect because he carries himself like a professional."
Huff never experienced a winning season in Oakland — he suffered through 4-12 season last year — so it wasn't difficult to convince him to join the defending Super Bowl champions.
"I had some good years [in Oakland]; I had some bad years there," Huff said. "I don't really want to dwell on that. I'm here now, and I'm excited to win. I'm excited to be part of this organization and ready to get another ring."
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