Raven looks to turn corner Football: Cornerback DeRon Jenkins knows he will be scrutinized in his third season. Not only is he prepared for the challenge, he welcomes it.

September 05, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The regular-season opener is at hand, the spotlight is shining brightly on him, and right cornerback DeRon Jenkins is well aware of the crucial test that lies ahead.

His response? Bring it on.

Jenkins may lack NFL experience, but the third-year pro from Tennessee does not come up short on confidence.

He has yet to prove his worth as a second-round draft choice, a guy for whom the Ravens gave up three picks to grab in 1996. He acknowledges that, as an unproven player at one of the game's most difficult positions -- especially lining up opposite a proven veteran like Rod Woodson -- he repeatedly will attract the attention of quarterbacks this year, beginning with Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart.

His response? Bring it on.

"I don't want to hide, and I don't want to be known as the weak link of the defense," Jenkins said. "I realize teams are going to come after me. As a cornerback, you have to welcome that challenge. I don't take that as an insult. I take it as a football game. If I make the plays, teams will stop doing it."

The Ravens think Jenkins, 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, is ready to make the grade. They point to the adjustments he has made during the learning process that has consumed his first two years. They point to the instincts he has developed to go with the world-class speed he brought with him to the NFL. They think the player who looked so lost as a rookie, then showed signs of life late in 1997, has arrived.

Judging by his third training camp and preseason, they could be right. Jenkins played nearly all four exhibition games, and gave the Ravens reason to be encouraged. His run support was noticeably better and more physical. His pass coverage was more dependable.

He finished fourth on the team with 10 tackles, while deflecting two passes, causing a fumble and recording a sack.

"He's played like a veteran, and I'm excited for him," Ravens defensive backs coach Alvin Reynolds said of Jenkins. "After three years, he's figured out how to play this game. He's done it in the classroom, in training camp and in the preseason. Now, it's time for him to take his game to another level in the real season."

Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis added: "One of the satisfying things about being a coach is seeing the light come on, seeing a guy go out and do the things you've been teaching. DeRon has always had the ability, and now he's consistent in his practice habits and his confidence hasn't wavered. That has shown in his play."

Jenkins, who converted from wide receiver to cornerback as a freshman at Tennessee, admits it took him quite a while to adjust to the pace of the NFL. In college, where he was a top-flight cornerback, opponents often would elect not to challenge him. For every team like Florida that was blessed with two or three fine receivers, most other opponents had one.

"At this level, a team like Jacksonville can beat you with [receiver] Jimmy Smith, but their No. 3 receiver can do the same thing to you," Jenkins said. "In college, you can dominate some games and start taking things for granted."

Things started to click for Jenkins late last year, when he started the final four games in place of the injured Eugene Daniel. Over that stretch, he recorded his first interception in a victory over Seattle, made six solo tackles during another victory over Tennessee, and made seven solo tackles and broke up three passes in a close loss to Jacksonville.

Jenkins followed that by adding some bulk to his slight frame in the off-season.

The Ravens, determined to improve at a position weakened by the free-agent loss of Langham to San Francisco, signed Woodson and drafted Duane Starks in the first round. The arrival of Starks, whose four-year contract included a $3 million signing bonus, sent a message to Jenkins.

Produce. Now.

"It didn't bother me. I knew they were going to get a corner in the first or second round, because we needed another one. You need three good ones [for nickel situations]," Jenkins said. "I didn't take it personally. Since I played well at the end of last season, I felt [the starting job] should be mine to lose.

"People say I started slow or had a rough beginning. I believe quarterback and cornerback are the toughest positions to make an impact right away. I'm staying off my heels, hitting harder, correcting my mistakes. I don't think of this as a make-or-break year for me. I'm a better player than I was, and I know I can become a serious threat."

In other words, bring it on.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers (season opener)

Site: Ravens stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1: 01 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Steelers by 3

Tickets: Sold out

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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