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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With an acrobatic display the Baltimore Ravens had nearly given up on ever witnessing, Devard Darling is walking the tight-rope of the depth chart.
In his quest to emerge as the Ravens’ third receiver, Darling made a major statement Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles at M&T Bank Stadium by catching five passes for a game-high 121 yards.
Darling flashed acceleration on a 19-yard reception over the middle. He demonstrated body control on a diving 42-yard sideline grab he snagged with only his right hand. Plus, the third-year receiver put an exclamation point on a breakthrough game that towers over his previous production during two entire seasons.
Early in the fourth quarter, Darling secured a 27-yard touchdown pass on a hard spiral from Kyle Boller in the back of the end zone over two defensive backs. “Great for Devard to show up,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Those are the kind of plays we’ve been waiting to see Devard make.”
Darling enters this season with just two career receptions for five yards following two injury-plagued seasons dominated by heel problems.
Although the 6-foot-1, 215-pound former Washington State standout has always been regarded as one of the most athletic receivers on the roster, that talent hasn’t translated into a major regular-season contribution since arriving in Baltimore. Now, Darling has completed his maiden voyage into the end zone, albeit in a preseason game.
“It was great,” Darling said. “I haven’t scored in a couple of years, so it felt good being back in the end zone.”
After Darling played 10 games last season and failed to catch a pass, Billick sat Darling down in his office and informed him that the team was going to bring in other receivers, but stressed that he would still be given a chance to prove himself.
That’s all Darling ever wanted.
“Just growing up in the league and knowing what’s expected of me,” Darling said when asked what has changed about his game. “Just being more focused and knowing what I’m doing. Of course, I feel like I’m just a better person. I’m a better man off the field and a better receiver on the field.”
Darling, 24, a native of the Bahamas who left college after his junior year, came to Baltimore in 2004 as an unfinished product. His routes weren’t very consistent, and the former high school track star relied heavily on his size and sprinting ability. Now that he’s no longer a project, Darling’s game appears to be more refined.
“Devard is making the best out of this opportunity, and you’re not going to get too many in this league,” two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “Devard has worked hard enough and put the time in. When the ball is in the air, he’s going to make a play. This game is only going to breed confidence for him.”
It remains close between Darling and rookie Demetrius Williams for the spot behind Mason and Mark Clayton. Clarence Moore was activated earlier this week from the physically unable to perform list, but isn’t completely recovered from a sports hernia. That leaves a clear opening for Darling midway through the preseason, and this latest performance just boosted his stock.
“Personally, I’m just building the confidence up,” Darling said. “Showing the coaches they can count on me and I can be accountable.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.