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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A large, ornate tattoo of a lion wearing a crown emblazons Dawan Landry’s right arm. It’s an obvious signal of the strength and fierceness he hopes to project as a hard-hitting NFL starting safety.
Landry wears tan rubber bands around his wrists at every practice, etching in red-and-black ink messages that read, “Keep the Faith," and "God knows.” Plus, the deeply-religious Baltimore Ravens’ rookie has a scroll containing a biblical passage tattooed on his chest.
It’s Psalms: 27, which begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
To Landry, the meaning is clear as far as how he can apply it to football.
“It tells me not to fear any man because God is on my side,” Landry said. “My faith definitely helps me. All of these things are reminders to me of positive things in my life, and I use them for inspiration.”
The Ravens have enough faith in Landry that they awarded him a starting job after a brief competition with veteran Gerome Sapp, anointing a fifth-round draft pick from Georgia Tech as worthy of being part of an established defense headlined by middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed.
So far, the 23-year-old hasn’t looked out of place, registering nine tackles, including five solo tackles during last week’s 30-7 preseason loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Barring injury, the 6-foot, 220-pounder is the unquestioned starter opposite Reed as the Ravens prepare to conclude the preseason against the Washington Redskins on Thursday at FedEx Field.
“He’s a smart kid,” defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. “Normally with a fifth-round pick there are some shortcomings, but not with this young man. He’s intelligent.
“He was a big hitter in college, and hopefully we’ll get to see that against Washington. Because of his size, some people might want to label him as an in-the-box-safety, but we think he’s got a little bit more range than that.”
The Ravens opted to not pursue four-year starter Will Demps once he became an unrestricted free agent, not blocking his departure to the New York Giants. Now, Landry is the only starting member of the secondary who hasn’t been selected to the Pro Bowl as he undergoes his NFL initiation alongside Reed and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle.
“I just want to show the coaches they made the right decision in starting me and that I’m a guy they can always depend on to make the plays and good decisions,” Landry said. “The most important thing showing my teammates that they can depend on me.”
A native of Ama, La., Landry arrived at Georgia Tech as a blue-chip quarterback prospect. After one year of running the scout team, Landry was moved to safety where he emerged as All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team selection. He registered 242 tackles, 20 ½ tackle for losses, seven interceptions, four fumble recoveries and three sacks during his final three seasons. The Georgia Tech defense ranked in the top 25 nationally in 2004 and 2005.
Adjusting to the NFL, though, is an altogether different matter.
“Dawan has impressed me a great deal,” Scott said. “He’s a smart, wise young man who is mature. He’s not like a lot of guys that come up from college and still have that mentality of partying in bars and hanging out. He has beliefs.
"Maybe that’s why he’s so mature because he prays for the right things. He understands that he has a tremendous opportunity and that we’re counting on him to start. That’s rare, especially on a great defense, and that’s a testament to his maturity and ability as a player.”
Landry has been relying on the counsel of Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year regarded as one of the more cerebral athletes in the league. He’s been showing Landry when to gamble, when to play it safe and how to anticipate quarterbacks’ throws and receivers’ patterns.
Landry hasn’t been able to imitate Reed’s ball-hawking ability yet, but has demonstrated a willingness to tackle aggressively and solid timing when called upon to blitz.
“Ed has been great,” Landry said. “He’s been teaching me the ins and outs of the defense. As long as we’re on the same page, I think we’ll be all right.”
From a business standpoint, Landry is penciled into the depth chart by the coaching staff. From an interpersonal standpoint, he acknowledged an awareness that he has yet to demonstrate that he truly belongs on the defense. He’s determined to show that he won’t represent a weak link in a strong chain.
“I need to prove myself, period,” Landry said. “I want to show that I’m a guy who should be taken seriously.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.