Ravens' Kamalei Correa maintains grip on starting inside linebacker role

Kamalei Correa knew the question was coming. While being asked about a missed tackle of Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi on a short catch turned into an 11-yard gain on the second play of the Ravens’ preseason victory Thursday night, the inside linebacker nodded his head and said, “Yeah.”

And then Correa answered the question the same way he approaches an opposing ball carrier: head up, shoulders square.

“You’re going to mess up, you’re not always going to be perfect on every play,” he said after Wednesday’s practice in Owings Mills. “But that’s no excuse for me. I should have made that play. I slipped. I don’t know if anybody saw that, but that’s still no excuse. It’s really a routine play for me to make. I should have made that. That’s on me. But it’s one snap and clear. I had to keep playing the rest of the game because I couldn’t let it keep happening.”

Correa, a second-year pro, has been projected as the starter at the weak-side linebacker position previously occupied by Zachary Orr. While the lowlight against the Dolphins looms as a hiccup in Correa’s development, his coaches have expressed their satisfaction thus far with his play.

“I think he played well,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Wednesday. “There are certainly some things he can get better at, like we all can. But I’m pleasantly surprised by some of it. I think he’s grasping everything. He has very few — if any — mental mistakes. I think that sometimes just because he hasn’t played in there a whole lot, sometimes when you get a new play that you have never seen before, you might be a little slow reacting to it. But that’s pretty normal for a guy that’s playing the position for the first time really inside. So I’ve been pleased with him so far. The guy runs to the ball, I think he’s trying to really play physical, and he looks like the guy that we drafted.”

When the Ravens used their second-round draft pick on Correa in 2016, they had selected a 6-foot-3, 241-pound pass-rushing outside linebacker who compiled seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles as a junior in his final season at Boise State.

But when Orr retired in January because of a serious congenital spine condition, the coaches decided to shift Correa from a backup role on the outside to a starting role on the inside next to middle linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Correa, 23, has embraced the transition even if it has added more responsibilities to his plate.

“There’s going to be a learning curve for everybody, and that’s every single day,” he said. “You’re not going to be perfect. There’s always going to be something you need to fix — whether it’s your hands or your feet or your run-read, your pass-read. There’s just so much that you need to learn every single day.”

Patrick Onwuasor and rookie Bam Bradley are listed as the Nos. 2 and 3 weak-side linebackers, respectively. But Correa’s primary competitor is the 6-0, 227-pound Onwuasor, who started in Orr’s place in last season’s finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. Through two preseason games, Onwuasor has three tackles to Correa’s two on defense (which is more of an indication of how quickly the team has pulled the starting defense off the field) and is tied with Bradley for the special teams lead in tackles with three.

Correa and Onwuasor, who signed as an undrafted free agent before last season, are close friends, attending Future’s concert Monday night at Royal Farms Arena and occasionally catching a movie together. Both players said their friendship has not been affected by their pursuit of the same role.

“We’re having fun, having a great time, making each other better, pushing each other,” said Onwuasor, who celebrated his 25th birthday Tuesday. “If he sees something that I don’t see, he will come over and let me know, and if I see something that he doesn’t see, I will let him know. We’re out here having fun. We’re just out here moving around and playing fast.”

“We’re a family here,” Correa said. “If I’m out there, I’m hoping he’s wishing me the best, and if he’s out there, I’ve got his back through everything. It’s a family environment over here. So there isn’t a competition between me and him. It’s really just a competition within yourself to go out there every single day and be the best you can be.”

Coach John Harbaugh said Correa’s growth is no different from any young player trying to adapt to a new position.

“He is operating in a place where he needs to take his very good practice reps to the game consistently,” Harbaugh said. “I thought there were many more good reps in this [Miami] game than the first game [against the Washington Redskins], and he had some good reps in the first game, too.”

Perhaps the biggest assumption is that the starting job is Correa’s to lose. But he waved off that notion.

“I feel like it’s my job, it’s his job, it’s their job to lose,” Correa said. “It’s everybody’s job to lose. It comes down to knowing that the better man is going to play — whether if that’s me, whether if that’s Patrick, whether if that’s Bam, whether if that’s anybody else they bring in. It could be me or it could not be me. The better man is going to play, and I’ve got to live with it and keep fighting. I’m just trying to go out there and be the best player I can be every single day and keep working.”

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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