As starter, Demps feels no cushion

With safety job now his to lose, he defends against complacency

Ravens Training Camp

August 05, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The newfound security of a starting spot has yet to remove the uncertainty for the Ravens' Will Demps.

The former undrafted free agent has grown accustomed to the Ravens looking elsewhere at free safety in training camp, only to fall back to him in the regular season.

This year, however, Demps finds himself beginning a training camp as a starter for the first time in his three-year career. His focus has had to shift from fighting for a job to fighting complacency.

"I don't think I'm in a comfort zone at all," Demps said. "I haven't really achieved anything. Yeah, I did work myself up to make this team and become a starter. Now, it's taking it to the next level. I still have to work for it. It's not just given to me."

A former walk-on at San Diego State, Demps has had to prove himself his entire career, whether it's been college or the NFL.

In 2002, the Ravens intended on going with Anthony Mitchell as the starter before Demps' surprising preseason forced a change of plans.

Last year, they demoted Demps, deciding to start Corey Fuller at cornerback and move Gary Baxter to Demps' spot. After Fuller was injured at midseason and subsequently faded, the Ravens shifted Baxter to corner and bumped up Demps.

Starting this season wasn't even a lock three months ago, when there was speculation that the Ravens would take Iowa safety Bob Sanders if he was available in the second round. When he wasn't, guess who the Ravens turned to.

"He's one of those guys that you keep thinking, `We've got to get this [upgrade at his position] and we've got to get that," coach Brian Billick said. "And there he stands at the end of the day."

Demps has been knocked for his lack of speed and consistency. What can't be criticized is his penchant for making the big play.

That was established in his first game, when he intercepted Detroit's Joey Harrington in the 2002 preseason opener and ran it back 18 yards for the winning touchdown. It was reaffirmed in last season's playoff loss, when he picked off Tennessee's Steve McNair and returned it 56 yards for a score to tie the game at 7.

"He's passionate about playing and fits in with our guys," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "He makes plays. He's one of us."

Because he admittedly isn't as naturally gifted as some of the NFL's other starting safeties, Demps said his ability to come up with key turnovers is a combination of instincts and film study, which helps him identify and jump routes.

"They always say the ball finds me," Demps said. "But if I'm in the right position doing what I'm coached to do, I think I have a knack for finding the ball."

Finding Demps in what could be the NFL's most elite secondary is not difficult. Going on reputation, he often stands out playing alongside two first-round draft picks (Pro Bowl performers Chris McAlister and Ed Reed) and a second-rounder (Baxter).

Knowing the talent that surrounds him, Demps expects to be singled out by offenses.

"I don't want to be the weak link back there," Demps said. "I think that Tennessee [playoff] game is one where they tried to attack me. I held my own that game. I think that gave me confidence to come into the offseason and work hard."

Demps said his main goal this offseason was to trust his eyes, which should improve his reaction time and impact in the middle of the field. In 19 starts, he has intercepted three passes and broken up 15 others.

"When I see something, I have to go after it," Demps said. "Sometimes in camp, I get hesitant on certain things. I just want to go full speed and get that pick and jump on that ball."

For once, he can concentrate on upgrading his game without having to worry about trying to crack the starting lineup.

"That experience is very valuable to him," said Nolan, who estimated Demps has played 1,500 snaps in two seasons. "And it certainly shows because he's well ahead of the guys trying to compete for his job."

Whether Demps will be the Ravens' long-term answer at free safety is unknown. What can't be questioned is his dependability.

"He quietly knows what he's doing and he gets the job done," secondary coach Johnnie Lynn said. "What I can assure you is that he's not going to give this job up to anybody."

Ravens training camp

When: Through Aug. 24

Where: McDaniel College

Admission: Free

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