Ravens' Brightful faces competition from Abney

OWINGS MILLS – Lamont Brightful doesn't have to be informed that his grip on the Baltimore Ravens' return specialist job is far from a stranglehold.<br><br> The Ravens have offered him several reminders about his tenuous status over the last year.<br>

First, veteran Dedric Ward was signed last fall and granted a brief audition that sent Brightful to the bench before the Baltimore native awakened from a slump and regained his spot.

In April, the defending AFC North champions drafted ultra-productive former Kentucky standout Derek Abney in the seventh round to directly challenge Brightful.

Brightful apparently has received and understands the memo from management: Produce consistently and erase their concerns about his ability to catch the football.

Otherwise, the third-year professional will likely be looking for new employment.

"Year after year, no matter what you do, it's always going to be a battle," said Brightful, a swift reserve cornerback who has gained a dozen pounds from his weight lifting regimen since last season. "You've got to prove yourself all over again. I don't take it personal. I take it as I've got to perform better. 

"That's how football is. Let the best man win."

As the Ravens closed a mandatory minicamp Thursday, Ravens coach Brian Billick outlined what appears to be one of the purest intrasquad contests of training camp: "It should be a heated competition."

And it will primarily be determined by what the candidates demonstrate to special teams coordinator Gary Zauner during preseason games. 

Besides the presence of Abney, Brightful will also have to contend with: shifty rookie running back B.J. Sams, an undrafted free agent from McNeese State (La.) who has drawn praise from Billick and receiver Kareem Kelly, who returned punts at USC.

Brightful averaged 24.7 yards on kickoff returns last season, including a 75-yard jaunt against the Miami Dolphins. He had a modest 7.8 average on punt returns.

Most significantly, though, he continued to have his adventures catching the football.

"I know I've got to do better at securing the ball," said Brightful, who returned a punt 95 yards for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie two years ago. "That's the most important thing."

Abney may be the only prospect that can approach Brightful's speed.

Like Brightful, Abney isn't imposing in size at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. 

However, he owns five NCAA records, 11 Southeastern Conference, 14 school marks, returning six punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns.

He gained a school-record 5,856 yards. T

The Ravens were the only team to request Abney for a private workout this spring after he broke his foot in the first game last fall. Director of player personnel Phil Savage immediately called Abney an intriguing prospect after the team drafted him.

"The return game is my game, that's what I hang my hat on," Abney said. "I can catch the ball and run some routes, but I came here to return kicks. I know what the first priority is."

Abney was an All-SEC kick returner last year who led the league in all-purpose yardage (151.8 per contest) and kickoff return average (24.1). He also led Kentucky with 51 catches for 616 yards and five touchdowns.

The Wisconsin native is the only player in NCAA history to total 2,000 career receiving yards, 2,000 kickoff return yards and 1,000 punt return yards.

"I don't have much size, so I've got to accentuate my other qualities," Abney said. "Speed has always been my best asset."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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