OWINGS MILLS – Like that old rap song, Jimmy Smith is going back to Cali.
And it’s an important journey for the Baltimore Ravens’ imposing rookie cornerback beyond his personal story of returning to Southern California, roughly an hour drive from his hometown of Colton.
Although 40 to 50 friends and family are traveling to watch Smith square off with the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, thoughts of guarding a dangerous receiving corps are what’s consuming the first-round draft pick.
With Lardarius Webb expected to miss this game with a left turf toe injury, Smith is slated to replace him in the starting lineup.
“I’m thinking more about the game than being at home,” Smith said. “My focus is on doing good against Vincent Jackson and those guys.”
This is the kind of game the Ravens envisioned utilizing Smith in when they drafted him in the first round last April out of Colorado.
The former All-American selection has the size, speed and physical nature to be paired opposite elite wide receivers.
What he lacks is experience as this would be his most extended playing time yet after starting the past two games in the nickel package when offenses opened up in three wide receiver packages.
“I feel confident, I always feel confident,” Smith said. “A corner with no confidence is a corner who’s getting beat. I feel very confident that I can step in and do a good job.”
It’s unlikely that the Ravens will assign Smith the sole responsibility of checking Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder who leads the Chargers with 53 receptions for 952 yards and eight touchdowns.
However, the Chargers have so many weapons.
That includes star tight end Antonio Gates and another large, fast receiver in Malcom Floyd, all 6-5, 225 pounds of him.
“They’re a great passing team,” Smith said. “I’m a corner in the NFL. I want them to pass the ball. This is one of those games. It’s a game you would circle. A cornerback like this and receivers like that, it’s a challenge. It’s me against them.
“These are really big dudes. I’m considered a big corner, so these dudes have to be considered huge as far as receivers. They can run as well. When you watch them on film, they’re big and they can move pretty well.”
Smith has intercepted two passes and deflected six passes in nine games after missing four games with a high ankle sprain suffered in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During his convalescence, the Ravens made sure that they kept Smith involved mentally so he didn’t fall behind in his knowledge of the defense. Secondary coach Teryl Austin paid special attention to the rookie cornerback.
“The first thing that they want to do is isolate themselves, because they don’t feel like they’re a part of it anymore,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to keep them engaged. That’s what we do with all the guys. Teryl did a great job with Jimmy.
“We said, ‘The only thing that’s different is you’re not going out there and playing on Sunday, but you have to take the approach and prepare as if you’re going to play on Sunday. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, that’s got to be the exact same as if you were playing.’ So, he did that. He was diligent about that.”
Smith allowed a touchdown pass against the Cincinnati Bengals when he got caught flat-footed on an Andy Dalton fade pass to Andre Caldwell.
Against the Cleveland Browns, Smith acknowledged that he didn’t communicate properly on a touchdown pass behind him to tight end Evan Moore.
Through his mistakes, he’s learning more about the subtleties of playing cornerback in the NFL.
“You can see how fast he’s coming back, and the plays that he’s starting to make,” Pagano said. “That’s only going to continue to go up. From a schematic standpoint, he’s not out there thinking about what his job is anymore.
“He understands, he knows what to do, and now he’s able to diagnose and recognize formations and down and distance and things like that and just being able to play and make plays.”
Over the past few games, Smith has increased his knowledge of the defense and looks more natural lining up against receivers.
He’s typically positioned close to the line of scrimmage with his facemask close to receivers’ chests, delivering a powerful jam before and turning and running with them step for step.
“I feel like I’m getting a way better grasp of the defense,” Smith said. “That’s what you really need as a rookie. Once you feel comfortable, that’s when you start making the plays that you want to make. That’s where I’m at right now, I’m getting really comfortable.”
Where Smith can make a difference is through his sheer size.
He’s the biggest cornerback on the Ravens’ roster and represents the physical prototype for the position. The Ravens haven’t had a potential shutdown cornerback with his dimensions since former Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister was on the roster.
“We’re kind of excited about the fact that we’ve got some bigger corners who are playing really well to take out there,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We didn’t have that as much a couple years ago when we were out there, so we’ll be looking forward to seeing how those guys match up against their great receivers.”
And Webb is anticipating that Smith will harness his talent and excel against the Chargers.
“I know Jimmy is going to do great,” Webb said. “We’ve done a great job of preparing him up to now. He’s an NFL cornerback. He knows what he has to do. He’ll have to do the preparation. So far, he’s doing well.”
Besides the increased responsibility for Smith, this game does represent an opportunity for bragging rights.
Smith played high school football with Chargers rookie cornerback Shareece Wright, a former USC standout.
They never played against each other in college and remain close friends.
“That’s my buddy, inseparable,” Smith said. “It’s going to be fun, but I’m not going to be playing gunner this game. So, I don’t really get to match up with him. But it’s going to be fun. We had this circled when we knew who we were playing. So, it’s going to be exciting.”