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Small corners, lofty potential

The Baltimore Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -The class of 2009 cornerbacks is conspicuous for its lack of height, but it might be better characterized by its extraordinary skills.

Darius Butler of Connecticut is just 5 feet 10, but he has a phenomenal vertical leap and big-play ability.

Alphonso Smith stands only 5-9, but who can argue with his 21 career interceptions for Wake Forest?

D.J. Moore is 5-8 and unapologetic. Going against bigger receivers is something he's used to.

"I'm 5-8, so everybody is bigger than me for the most part," the Vanderbilt cornerback said yesterday during NFL scouting combine interviews.

"It's the same way when you go against anybody. You read your keys and do your job, and the quarterback ain't trying to make a jump ball every play."

If the Ravens take a cornerback with their first-round pick April 25 - or trade down into the second round for better value - these are the three players they likely will be looking at.

Malcolm Jenkins of Ohio State and Vontae Davis of Illinois - 6-0 and 6-1, respectively - are expected to go in the middle of the first round. Unless Davis slips to the 26th pick, the Ravens will probably consider Butler, Smith and Moore.

It's a group that was undaunted - and undiminished - by size differential in college.

Smith said he spends his summers working against elite NFL receivers Anquan Boldin and Santonio Holmes, honing his competitive edge. He believes he's a first-round draft pick.

"I think I am," he said. "I think out of all the defensive backs, I've had the most productive career. Twenty-one career interceptions. ... I think, honestly, I'm the best corner in this draft. But I have certain things against me: My height. Playing at Wake Forest. Top-end speed. I just know I've made plays."

Butler might be the most intriguing of the three. His cousin is Ravens running back Willis McGahee, and he played high school ball in Broward County, Fla., but wasn't recruited by Miami, Florida or Florida State.

He wound up at UConn, where he was a part-time wide receiver, a dangerous kick returner and a shutdown cornerback. He has been working at Deion Sanders' camp in Dallas and professes to have run the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds there.

Butler's plan is to open eyes when the defensive backs go through drills tomorrow at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"I want to show freakish athletic ability," he said. "That's my goal. Accomplish some records."

Shorter cornerbacks can keep from losing draft position with fast 40 times and a good vertical jump. Butler said he'll try to push his vertical to 44 inches tomorrow.

"That'll open some eyes," he said.

At 183 pounds, Butler is the lightest of the three second-tier corners. And there are concerns about his durability. He missed three games late in his senior season with a knee sprain but came back to play in UConn's bowl game and the Senior Bowl.

Asked why an NFL team should draft him, Butler was quick with his answer:

"Because I can play any scheme, because I can match up with any receiver in the NFL, athletic-wise. I can run with anybody," he said. "And I am able to play off man. Obviously, in the NFL, you can't touch a receiver after 5 yards, so you've got to have great hips and great feet."

Here's what else makes Butler a nice fit for the Ravens: He's an electric kick returner who likes the job.

"I love whenever I can touch the ball; I love to get on the field," he said. "Returning, that's an opportunity to be on the field and make plays."

Butler said he talked with Ravens officials at the Senior Bowl and they're on his interview card for tomorrow night. But he has pretty much talked to everyone in search of a corner.

Smith and Moore, meanwhile, have built their noteworthy college careers on quickness and competitiveness.

Smith has "got that 'I'm going to pick off everything' type attitude," Moore said. "I like to watch him play."

Moore was a do-it-all player at Vanderbilt. Despite his size, he took snaps at quarterback, played wide receiver and returned kicks.

Smith is smart and experienced, a four-year player who didn't surrender a touchdown pass his senior season.

"Personally, I think I compensate for [his height] with the ball skills I have, the knowledge of the game and the way I approach the game," Smith said. "I'm very, very competitive. Every summer, I get a chance to face Anquan Boldin and Santonio Holmes when they come home. ... I do what I do, and I do it very well."

CORNERING ABILITY

Eric DeCosta, director of player personnel for the Ravens, gave a thumbnail evaluation on the top five cornerbacks before combine workouts this weekend. Here's what he had to say about them:

Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State

"Very good size, very good speed. He's physical. Some teams may project him to safety because he is so physical. Very good ball skills and big-play ability."

Vontae Davis, Illinois

"Very explosive, tremendous speed, tremendous strength. A little bit undisciplined with some of his technique. Of all the corners in the draft, he probably has the most ability, the most upside."

D.J. Moore, Vanderbilt

"A junior, he has quickness, speed, good cover ability. A very good player who plays as a receiver and on special teams. Can play inside or outside."

Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest

"Very polished guy, very quick, but undersized. Very good playmaker. Can play inside at the nickel position, can play outside. Very smart."

Darius Butler, Connecticut

"Very athletic guy, very quick feet, has some durability questions about him. Plays as a receiver and also returns punts and kicks. Very good ball skills, big-play ability."

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