He's cornering at a new speed

Ravens: Unlike his rookie season, Duane Starks is off to a fast start in camp, brimming with confidence as he shows defensive backs the way.

August 05, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Nearly a year ago, cornerback Duane Starks was nowhere to be found on the practice fields, but now he is all over them.

Starks, entering his second year, has clearly been the best defensive back in the Ravens' training camp. He is no longer overthinking or hesitating, just reacting and beaming with confidence. This Starks isn't the same Starks.

As a rookie, he reported to training camp late after a weeklong holdout. The new guy couldn't wait for training camp to open.

"If you had asked me last year what I needed to learn, I would have said, `A lot,' even though I didn't know how much," said Starks. "I came in this year knowing more of the plays and reacting faster. There's a world of difference."

"He's done a very good job of preparing himself physically for the rigors of training camp," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "Mentally, he's been tough through this camp."

It could be seen on the first day of training camp, when Starks knocked down two passes to receiver Jermaine Lewis on curl routes. He's been closing with great acceleration and his speed at changing directions has never been better.

He's been making play after play, showing all concerned that he was worth the No. 10 overall pick in the NFL draft in 1998.

"That's been the area where I'm trying to make a great improvement," said Starks. "One day I'm great, the next day I'm mediocre. I'm trying to get away from mediocrity. It's impossible to make big plays all the time, but the goal is to make as many as possible."

Starks, 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds, made his share last season, even though he started only eight games. He was impressive right from the opener, when he picked off a Kordell Stewart pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers and then tracked down running back Richard Huntley after a 48-yard run and punched the ball into the end zone for a touchback.

Starks tied for the NFL rookie interception lead at five with the Oakland Raiders' Charles Woodson, and finished with 50 tackles, plus six more on special teams, forced two fumbles and knocked down 19 passes, second best on the team. That's a pretty good season by most rookie standards, but Starks wasn't a normal rookie.

And cornerback isn't a normal position. Next to quarterback, it's the most difficult to learn in the NFL. Starks got on-the-job training last season from James Jett, Randy Moss, Cris Carter and twice from Carl Pickens.

"It was an adjustment picking up the speed of the game," said Starks. "The speed of receivers changed from week to week, but their routes were so much better than in college football. The players were more experienced beating press coverage."

Starks was picked on a lot. Steelers wide receiver Charles Johnson turned him and then pushed off for what proved to be the game-winning, 55-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter of the second game, a 16-6 Pittsburgh victory. Oakland had 245 yards passing against the Ravens, and the Indianapolis Colts burned them for 344. Starks said those were his worst games.

He spent a lot of time last season talking with his father, Willie, a minister, on the phone.

"In this game, you know good things are going to happen and bad things are going to happen," said Starks.

"My father called me a lot because he didn't want me getting down on myself. When that happens, everything turns negative. I spent a lot of last season learning about myself.

"Quite often, I got caught peeking at the quarterback [see Johnson] and not reading the receiver. I had to learn how to practice and to get totally ready for the games. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable about everything."

Starks' role won't change this season, Lewis said, but the team is expecting more from him. Lewis wants Starks to communicate better, to become a leader in the secondary.

"He has great retention, with the ability to take from the film and recognize it in on the field," said Lewis. "He has to avoid all the ups and downs from a year ago. The NFL season is long.

"Whether you go to Miami, Nebraska or Colorado, the season here is more physical, more intense. On a day-to-day basis, Duane wasn't quite ready for it, but he fought through it. Duane had some great weeks and some not-so-great weeks, but he learned from it. We can see the result of it."

Ravens camp

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Directions from Baltimore: Take Interstate 695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 west to Route 31 south. At blinking yellow light, turn left (Route 31). At first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. Proceed up the hill. The parking entrance is on the left.

Information: 410-261-FANS

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