Baxter a man of many tackles at defensive back

Corner, safety, nickel back, this Raven stands ready

October 29, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Gary Baxter has developed a way to handle shifting positions -- sometimes as many as three within the same quarter -- during Ravens games. He ignores the moves.

"I just love the game so much, I try not to think twice about what position I'm playing," said Baxter, who started at safety but played cornerback and nickel back in the fourth quarter of the team's 26-6 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

"If I have any hesitation on my part, then I don't think I'll go out and play to the best of my abilities.

"For me, it's more of a challenge. I think I play better when I'm under a lot of pressure. I tend to respond. Going from safety, to nickel, to corner, I've been doing it so much, it's starting to be normal for me. It's not easy, but it's something that I really like to do."

Rarely, though, do coaches ask players to do what Baxter is doing. By most accounts, Baxter and Tampa Bay's Dwight Smith are the only players in the league this season who have started a game at cornerback and safety, and been asked to cover the inside receiver as the nickel (fifth) defensive back in three- or four-receiver formations.

Baxter was on full display against the Broncos. Three consecutive Denver possessions ended with Baxter playing a different position.

Linebacker Ray Lewis intercepted Broncos quarterback Danny Kanell with Baxter at safety and nine minutes left in the game, then Kanell threw a third-down incompletion with Baxter at nickel on the Broncos' next possession.

The third drive ended when Kanell was sacked by Peter Boulware on a fourth down with Baxter at cornerback for an injured Corey Fuller.

While the position changes required plenty of skill, the question is whether Baxter is becoming a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.

"That has crossed my mind," Baxter said. "How will I ever know how good I could be if I'm not at one position long enough to really understand the game? But it's a flip side to it. It helps me to understand from the corner's perspective and the safety's perspective. I think it's helping me to be an all-around great player."

Baxter finished second on the team with eight tackles against the Broncos and also intercepted Kanell late in the fourth quarter (for which he was awarded a game ball). He is third on the team and first in the secondary with 50 tackles this season.

He has started six games at safety and one time at cornerback against the San Diego Chargers in place of Chris McAlister.

"You're going to find that many more people are going to go out and find a guy like Gary Baxter," secondary coach Donnie Henderson said. "Because it gives you more flexibility. It's going to cost you money to get that guy, but save you money from having to get three or four other guys."

For Baxter, rotating positions within a secondary has long since been his call. As a sophomore at Tyler (Texas) High School, Baxter worked his way up to varsity and remembers recording six tackles in a state playoff game on a team that would eventually produce 19 Division I players, according to Baxter.

He was at safety that game, but the next season coaches could not decide if he would be better at cornerback.

"I did the same thing I'm doing now, going from safety to corner," Baxter said.

"I come from a hometown full of football tradition. It was straight football from middle school to high school. I only lost five games total. On Friday night's game, the whole town shuts down and we'd have like 22,500 people."

Recruiters from Miami and Texas came calling, but he settled on Baylor, generally one of the worst teams in the Big 12 conference.

His team won two games his senior year.

The Ravens made him a second-round pick, groomed him as a safety his rookie season, started him at cornerback last year and returned him to safety once Fuller signed during the offseason.

If Fuller, who has a groin and hamstring strain, misses Sunday's home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, bet on Baxter returning to cornerback.

"I don't know anybody who hasn't played that position can totally appreciate what an adjustment that is for him, and he's doing it, not just from game to game, but it could be from play to play," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We are going to try to keep it to a minimum."

Either way would be fine with Baxter, who has one simple goal. "I want to prove that I am somebody," he said.

NOTE: Ravens receiver Travis Taylor and his wife, Rashidah, dressed up as Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and the woman who is accusing Bryant of sexual assault at the Ravens Gridiron Halloween Party on Monday night, according to a report by WBAL-TV. Taylor's wife's costume allegedly said "Three men in 3 nights," a reference to the woman accusing Bryant of sexual assault, and it caused a stir, according to the report.

Next for Ravens

Matchup:Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6) vs. Ravens (4-3)

Site:M&T Bank Stadium

When:Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Ravens by 7

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