Talented trio is cornerstone in Ravens' secondary; CBs Starks, McAlister, Jenkins have all tools, but experience is problem; GENERATION X AND O; YOUNG CORNERBACKS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis seemed to be crossing his fingers as he answered the question.

Lewis pondered the cornerback position in his defense. He thought about the youth and inexperience that are written all over Duane Starks, Chris McAlister and DeRon Jenkins. He wondered how much growing up the trio would do in 1999, to the team's benefit and at the team's expense.

This much is clear. If the Ravens are to move into an elite class among the league's defenses, their babies on the corner must mature quickly. Pass defense has been a weakness for three seasons in Baltimore. And Lewis acknowledged that, with three cornerbacks sporting a combined four years' experience, the growing pains will persist before they subside.

Such is life when you have the youngest trio of cornerbacks in the NFL.

"A year from now, hopefully we'll be saying we've got some real experienced guys back there," Lewis said. "[Inexperience] has a chance to rear up and show itself, but we've got no other choice."

In other words, the Ravens' cornerback position, which was probably the team's weakest during its first two seasons, is in pretty good shape, but it's far too early to anoint the team's promising trio as anything special.

The raw talent is undeniable.

Starks, a first-round draft pick heading into his second year, already is one of the team's best pure athletes, and his toughness belies his slight, 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame. He gave the Ravens a handful of highlights on defense and special teams as a rookie and started the last eight games.

Jenkins, who has tried to cement a starting job for two years -- the Ravens drafted him in the second round of 1996 -- has turned a corner by having his best training camp. For now, he has held off the challenge of McAlister, one of the most exciting players to come out of the 1999 draft.

In his first training camp and preseason, McAlister showed the instincts and athletic ability that made Starks such a hot prospect a year earlier. Now, throw in McAlister's size (6-1, 206) and willingness to be physical with wide receivers.

"He is one tremendous talent," Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "He is going to be a great one."

Like any rookie, though, the pace of the NFL jumped McAlister like a great pump fake. He made some dazzling plays early in training camp, but his legs wore down in the face of endless repetitions in the hot sun. He looked weary in his first preseason tests, as receivers repeatedly beat him on slant-in routes. He sometimes wandered out of position in certain coverages.

McAlister made for some good moments later in preseason. He is built like a safety, and he pummeled numerous receivers with a safety's ferocity.

"I'm trying not to put pressure on myself to do anything out of the ordinary," McAlister said. "Every receiver I've faced has brought something different to the table: speed, quickness, route-running ability. My body is kind of sore. I got my legs taken away from me early in camp, using a lot of wasted energy. I learned how to conserve it and use it more in spurts.

"The pace of the game is definitely faster here than it was in college, but I don't feel like it's going to get faster than I am."

The consensus in the Ravens' organization is that it's only a matter of time before McAlister overtakes Jenkins and becomes a starter.

"We've seen progress. We've seen improvement," Lewis said. "He made a lot of good plays against the Giants, and there were a few plays where he wasn't where he was supposed to be. He's done good things, but he has a lot of work to do.

"As soon as we feel he has the consistency he needs, his natural ability will take over."

Jenkins, heading into his fourth season, is as polished as he's ever been. But Lewis said he sensed a letdown near the end of camp, once Jenkins realized that McAlister was not going to beat him out for a starting job just yet. Jenkins anticipated and reacted better than he ever has, but he remains the least physical of the trio.

"[Jenkins] reached a point early on where he thought he knew everything. Now he's having to learn again," Lewis said. "I don't think he can afford that sigh of relief."

Regardless of when Jenkins loses his starting job, his role in the Ravens' defense will remain vital. Throughout the preseason, when McAlister was on the field with him and Starks, Jenkins worked inside covering slot receivers in the nickel package.

All three cornerbacks will get considerable playing time in 1999, no matter what the rotation.

"I'm just trying to get better, trying to understand the system more," said Jenkins, who lost his starting job to Starks midway through the 1998 season. "My ability is the same, but now I'm not thinking as much.

"I went through the same thing with Duane last year, having to fight. That's the story of being in this league."

Starks is a huge key, especially early on. His rookie year started strongly, as Starks made big plays on special teams and produced some spectacular interceptions in the season's first half. But after becoming a starter alongside Rod Woodson, he suffered badly. Opposing quarterbacks picked on the young guy with the tired legs and the bruised psyche. Starks gave up a handful of touchdowns.

He was one of the most improved players this year in camp, where he reported five pounds heavier and noticeably stronger. He clearly has a bright future, but Starks also infuriates his coaches occasionally. Twice during the preseason, he relaxed momentarily when the Ravens' defense jumped offside. Each time, Starks gave up a big play.

"We can't have that happen. We can't afford that," Lewis said of Starks' mental lapses. "Duane really understands what we're doing. He's blown very few mental assignments. But he can't relax."

McAlister said relaxing will not be part of his football vocabulary this fall. He expects opponents to go after him often. And he would not have it any other way.

"They are going to attack you no matter who you are, unless you're Deion Sanders," McAlister said. "I always have that bull's-eye on my back. If any corner doesn't think the ball is coming his way on every play, he's going to get beat probably a few times."

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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