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Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is growing into his role

At this time last year, there were plenty of questions about Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.

In his first three NFL seasons, the 2011 first-round draft pick fought injuries and inconsistency, but it was his defense in the end zone on San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree that helped preserve the Ravens' victory in Super Bowl XLVII.

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Last year, Smith was probably the Ravens' best cornerback by season's end after he decided to get back to the physical, press style that had served him well at Colorado.

Smith, 26, has had an eventful past couple of months. In July, he was arrested at a Towson bar and restaurant for failure to obey a lawful order from a police officer, but he was released with a citation. Smith won't comment on the incident until it's resolved.

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He recently became a first-time father, which he says changed his life.

His preparation for the 2014 season was interrupted when Smith took a nasty fall to the turf in the Ravens' second preseason game, against the Dallas Cowboys. A chest bruise left him coughing up blood.

Smith sat down with The Baltimore Sun before the start of the season and discussed his transformation as a player and person, the character questions that might have affected his draft position and his belief in the Ravens secondary.

Compare your confidence level now to what it was at the start of last season.

I've always had confidence in myself, but the more plays you make, the more reps you get, the more you get to actually be out there and build confidence, the better you're going to be. I feel like last year, I got to build more confidence. Even being a confident person, I got to build more confidence going against top players and playing well against them. I think that did a lot for me.

How much did your strong finish provide motivation into the offseason?

I think I'd be motivated the same way every single year. I don't think that's what dictates my motivation. I want to go in and be dominant every single year I play. I never want to be the person that's getting my [butt] whipped.

Obviously, not making the playoffs kind of gives you the fire in your stomach. But for me personally, I take every offseason and figure out what I need to do to get better. This offseason, I felt like there were a lot of things that I needed to do to get better.

In the last year, it seems like you're having a lot more fun, enjoying the give-and-take with the media. How do you explain the transformation?

I feel like I'm the same. I feel like you guys just talk to me more now because I've been making some plays. Before I wasn't making any plays, so you didn't talk to me, or when you did it was more about me not making plays.

Of course, I'm not going to want to sit there and talk about negative things. It wasn't that I talk more now or less. It's more that there's a better light shining on me than there was before. Before, there were different grounds that I was stepping on. It wasn't easy. It was more I wasn't living up to what I needed to be doing, and then I got questioned. Now it's more comfortable conversations.

There has been some concern about the team's cornerback group. Is it unfounded? Do you believe that cornerback play could be a strength of the team?

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I have all the faith that it can be a strength of the team. Everybody who is banged up is just banged up. … When it's time to go, we'll be ready. I have no doubt in that area. We're striving to be the strength of our defense.

What do you attribute your improved play last season to?

I think last year, I actually played my style. For the first two years, I watched a person ahead of me playing his style and then I'd try to emulate what he was doing instead of sticking to what I do best. Last year, I read the papers, people saying, 'Oh, he's going to be a bust and this and that.' In my head, I was just thinking, 'If I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out playing my game.'

Did it bother you when you heard people calling you a bust?

That's the media — they have to have something to talk about. It's fans, too, but … a lot of fans don't know football. A lot of media don't know football. They don't know what the ins and outs of it are. They just see, oh, if he's not making interceptions, he's not the greatest player.

People who know football know what happened. They know how sometimes you have to progress. It wasn't a situation of me being a bust or I was bad. I just got to a new level and I had to learn all over again how to play at this level.

Do you view cornerback as the hardest position to adjust to from college to the NFL?

Absolutely. Beside it being one of the most athletic positions, you have to face the fastest and the most skilled people on the field every down.

Playing corner, it's a lot of technique. But above all of that, it's confidence. With no confidence as a corner, you kind of feel naked out there. You feel like you are by yourself. You have no confidence on that island, you're going to lose every single time. I think building my confidence is what helped me get to where I am right now.

Who is the best cornerback in the NFL?

I don't think any of them are the best. I think everyone has different games. As far as [Richard] Sherman, he's a heck of a football player. He reads the game well; he picks a lot of balls off.

I think man-to-man, [Joe] Haden is a better corner. And out of them two, Patrick Peterson is the better athlete. I think they all bring something great to the game. I think they are all really talented people.

Who is the toughest receiver you've covered in the NFL?

You've got to give it to Calvin [Johnson]. I'd give it to Dez [Bryant], too. There are a lot of them. All the receivers are good, but nobody stands out in my head, like, "Wow, I just couldn't cover that guy."

Are you concerned about the rash of illegal contact and defensive holding calls?

No. I'm going to play my game. If I get called, I'll just tune it up some. But watching a couple of games, I think even the league is still trying to figure out how they're going to call it. … I'm going to just play regular until we figure it out.

Do you feel that every year, it becomes harder and harder to be a cornerback in this league?

Absolutely. They don't want you to jam; they want them to run free. Obviously, the NFL wants more touchdowns and they don't want defenses to be so great. They want to see people running and making spectacular plays. As long as they still give us a little bit of wiggle room, we're going to play hard.

How has being a father changed you?

It just kind of gives you a sense of reality. Being so young for so long, partying, working hard for football, then all of a sudden, a responsibility comes in your life that you can't take away. The love that you have for something that you've never met is undescribable. You're in love with something that you barely even know but you'd do anything in the world for that. It calms me down. It makes me just want to sit at home and have that family atmosphere.

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Who is your best friend on the team?

My better friends are obviously in the [defensive back] room. [Terrell Suggs], Jacoby [Jones], [Lardarius] Webb. Those are the dudes that I kick it with pretty often. I would say I kick it with Jacoby the most.

Set the record straight — did you get away with excessive contact on Michael Crabtree on the fourth-down play on the 49ers' final drive of Super Bowl XLVII?

I felt like that was an even call. He was trying to shove me to the ground. I'm trying to hold on to keep my feet. I'd play that a million times and a million times, I'd play that the same way. If I would have just let him push off like he wanted to, he would have caught the ball and we would never have had a ring. I'm going to stick with what I did.

Looking back, were some of the predraft questions about your character fair, and do you think you've dispelled them?

I made mistakes or did things that probably 85 percent of college kids were doing, except for I got caught. All these red flags on me honestly did make me want to make sure I was calm and I didn't do anything wrong. But all the kids that came in without red flags get to the league and have DUIs and this and that.

I always felt like I was a good person. I just made mistakes that most college kids make and I wanted to have fun in college and I was in a town where the mistakes that I made, it was accepted. I'm not giving that as an excuse. I just don't think that any of the issues and character concerns that I had coming out were real concerns or real red flags. I think if anything, it would be a yellow flag. Like, "OK, he smoked some weed. OK, he got drunk in college and partied underage."

Now that I'm a grown man, I can drink when I want to. I can do those types of things and I've taken care of myself fine.

What was the biggest thing you learned from Ed Reed and Ray Lewis?

How to be a professional.

I don't know if coaches even approach the game the way that those guys approach the game. I got the chance to watch film and study tape with Ed and see how he does that. Just how he watched it and his strategy, that's how I picked it up. I do exactly what he told me. See it twice, write it down. From them two, they teach you how to be a professional, how to respect the game, how to respect being a professional athlete in front of the world. That's kind of what they taught me.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JeffZrebiecSun

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