A fresh start for Starks Ravens bench Jenkins, give promising rookie job at cornerback

November 04, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The idea of being a backup never did sit well with Duane Starks. Beginning with Sunday's game against the visiting Oakland Raiders, the rookie cornerback will not be worrying about playing time.

The Ravens have decided to bench third-year right cornerback DeRon Jenkins and replace him with Starks, their first-round draft pick out of the University of Miami.

The team has discussed the move internally for several weeks, and after Jenkins was burned for a long touchdown by Jacksonville wide receiver Jimmy Smith in Sunday's 45-19 loss to the Jaguars, Starks moved up the depth chart. Jenkins will inherit Starks' former position as No. 3 cornerback, who assumes a prominent role in nickel coverage.

The coaching staff had been pleased with Jenkins' work earlier in the season. His end-zone interception helped preserve a 24-10 victory over the New York Jets in the season's second game. His run support had improved noticeably. But Jenkins has slipped in recent weeks. In addition to the Smith play, Jenkins blew the coverage on another touchdown pass -- nullified by a Jaguars penalty -- to tight end Pete Mitchell.

"DeRon has done a good job for us overall. He's probably been one of the most improved players on our squad," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "We think, in Duane, we have a guy who can help us a little more, who can make a few more plays. Whenever he's played, he's made his presence felt. I think it's time to see how he does in an entire ballgame."

"Duane has got great instincts. He has a very good feel for the game of football," added defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "He's reached the point in practice and in games where he's kind of closed the gap [on Jenkins]. I think he's a better natural cornerback than DeRon is. I hope I'm right."

Jenkins, 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, who was told of the change on Monday and declined to talk with reporters before leaving the team's Owings Mills facility, was unavailable for comment yesterday, the players' day off. He ranks fifth on the team with 28 solo tackles and second with 13 passes defensed.

Starks, 5-10, 170, was the 10th player selected overall in April's draft. Before signing a four-year, $7 million contract that included a $3.1 million bonus, he missed 16 days of training camp. That cost him the chance to beat out Jenkins for the starting job opposite veteran Rod Woodson in time for the season opener.

As a nickel back against Pittsburgh that day, Starks forced two turnovers. First, he leaped to make a spectacular interception against quarterback Kordell Stewart. Later, he chased down running back Richard Huntley and prevented a touchdown by punching the ball out of Huntley's hand and through the end zone for a touchback.

"I've been waiting for the opportunity," Starks said. "I felt [the Ravens] wanted to play it safe with the veteran, and I understand that. I was disappointed, but I didn't want to get frustrated with the situation, because I didn't want that to affect my performance. It benefited me in the long run, because the more I practiced, the more I understood about the NFL."

And Starks has never stopped turning heads, on defense and special teams.

He sprang punt returner Jermaine Lewis for a decisive touchdown with a devastating block in the Week 4 win over Cincinnati. On Oct. 18, Starks gave up a touchdown pass to Pittsburgh's Charles Johnson -- who got away with an illegal shove that league officials have since acknowledged -- but came back to make another interception. A week later, he gave up a score to Green Bay's Antonio Freeman, who froze Starks on the goal line with a great fake. Starks came back to bat away two passes. In Sunday's loss, Starks recorded his third interception of the year. He trails only Woodson in that area.

"We all know everybody in this league is going to get beat, but that guy is a playmaker," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said of Starks. "He's special. Everybody sees it."

"I know I've made some bad plays, but look at the big plays. When I'm in the game, I make things happen," Starks said. "You've got to have amnesia in the NFL. When bad things happen, the great players bounce back. I'm striving to be one of the greatest."

The demotion of Jenkins signals another stumbling block for the second-round draft choice out of Tennessee. The Ravens gave up picks in the third, fourth and seventh rounds in 1996 to draft Jenkins, who barely played as a rookie and progressed from a nickel back to a starter by the end of the 1997 season.

"DeRon is still going to play a lot. We need DeRon," Marvin Lewis said. "I think we've got three capable NFL corners."

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