McAlister, Starks green but ready

First exam at hand for promising tandem

August 12, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

It will be the first test in the longest season of his life. The first of 20 games. Let the hard knocks begin for rookie cornerback Chris McAlister.

Duane Starks has lived in McAlister's shoes. The memories of a turbulent rookie year, a season marked by big plays made and big plays surrendered, barely have subsided.

When the Ravens take the field tonight in their preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, many eyes will be on their two young first-round draft picks. The Eagles figure to test those cornerbacks early and often.

McAlister has much work to do. He intends to unseat veteran DeRon Jenkins as the starter at right corner, a job that Jenkins will not give up without a fight. Look for McAlister to start out as the third cornerback in the Ravens' nickel defense package tonight. Then, look for him to line up at right cornerback in the base defense for at least part of the second half.

McAlister, whose speed and coverage ability have been impressive since minicamp, has a clue about what awaits him. He knows the game will be played at a faster pace than any other in which he has participated. Whatever comfort level he has found practicing against his teammates will dissipate quickly on the turf at Veterans Stadium.

"This is my first real game," said McAlister, the 10th player drafted in April. "This game is going to start being a deciding factor about whether I can play at this level. I can't get the type of atmosphere practicing [in training camp] that I can get going up against another opponent."

Starks can impart some wisdom to his teammate. As the 10th overall draft pick in 1998, Starks performed well in preseason, then started the regular season in a blaze by picking off a pass and forcing a fumble. The grind of the NFL and a parade of superb athletes at wide receiver eventually knocked Starks' confidence down a few pegs, as he gave up a handful of touchdowns over the season's final two months.

"Last year was about learning to pace myself during a real long season. I had never played a season longer than 11 or 12 games," said Starks, who will be counted upon to mature swiftly as the starting left cornerback. "You can't get false confidence, because that will burst your bubble. You can't get complacent, even if the ball isn't coming your way. I'm a lot stronger physically, and I'm mentally more ready to play the game."

Said Ravens coach Brian Billick: "Duane is showing that maturity of having done this before. He's not thinking as much as he had to at this point last year."

Asked about McAlister, Billick looked ahead to tonight's inaugural test and said: "He's doing a lot of the right things. I asked Chris the other day if what I'm seeing in practice is going to show up on Thursday, or are you going to crawl into a fetal position. That's going to be fun to watch."

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