Settled at corner, Baxter focuses on getting healthy

Ravens Training Camp

August 02, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Now that the debate about where he should play has been resolved once and for all, Gary Baxter's biggest concern this training camp is simply fine-tuning his body.

Seemingly since his arrival as a second-round pick in 2001, Baxter had been dogged by repeated position shifts from safety - which many in the Ravens' organization thought was his natural position - to cornerback, his preference.

After starting the second half of last season at cornerback and playing at a level just below Chris McAlister, the only question surrounding Baxter the opening days of training camp concerns his health.

Baxter had hernia surgery this offseason and is limited in the number of repetitions he can take. In Friday's practice, he alternated with Ray Walls and said he was experiencing soreness afterward.

The discomfort of tearing scar tissue aside, Baxter still has to like his status compared with a year ago, when he was penciled in as the starting free safety but had to shuttle back to cornerback occasionally.

"Now that I'm a corner and don't have to worry about that transition, I can focus and get the feel," Baxter said. "It's exciting for me to know I can work one position now and see how good I can really become."

For the time being, though, Baxter's limitations give trepidation to a secondary that looked to be a strength of the team heading into the season. The focus will now be on a rookie long shot and two new arrivals during this week's practice.

With McAlister away from the team in a contract dispute (although there is speculation he will return soon) and Dale Carter lost for the season, the Ravens have had to shift Corey Fuller to cornerback from safety and convert former receiver Javin Hunter into a cornerback.

The subtractions have turned what looked like an outstanding secondary into a rather ordinary one that will need Fuller to return to the player he was for four seasons with the Cleveland Browns and Baxter to get healthy as soon as possible.

"I don't think I'm done," said Fuller, who is with the first team in McAlister's absence. "I trained hard this offseason. You can't predict injuries, but I just thank God I am back healthy.

"Let's not forget I have started for nine years, so I do know how to play cornerback in a game situation."

After Baxter and Fuller, the Ravens have a cluster vying for fourth cornerback: Walls, who played in 10 games last year but only a handful of snaps not on special teams; Hunter; newly signed veterans Fred Weary and Rashad Holman; return specialist Lamont Brightful; and undrafted rookie Lance Frazier.

Walls and Hunter are currently with the second team.

"Somebody is going to have to ... show us that they are the guy that wants to do the job," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "It's certainly disappointing that Dale won't be with us. But somebody in the past has stepped up. Maybe we'll find another Will Demps or something."

In fact, it was Demps' emergence at free safety last year that allowed Baxter to shift back to cornerback, where he started 14 games in the 2002 season.

When Baxter was at cornerback, the Ravens held teams under 169 net passing yards in seven of the last nine games (including playoffs).

The only thing Baxter would take back is the 49-yard touchdown pass he gave up to then-Tennessee Titans receiver Justin McCareins in the third quarter of the Ravens' playoff loss, a score that put the Titans ahead 14-10.

That memory has lingered with Baxter through the offseason.

"That play was solely on me," Baxter said. "We had some mistakes in that play, but when it all comes down to it, it was me against the man. At that time, I was really hurting with my hernia, but I'm not using that as an excuse. I only use that as motivation, something I can better off of."

After three seasons of position uncertainty, Baxter undoubtedly will have the chance to get better at the one he wanted to play all along.

"It was very unselfish what he did," Nolan said.

"But now Gary will be a corner and stay there. I think it is going to strengthen his approach, too. Mentally, he can shore up the position and not think about so many things."

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