Ravens confident in Smith as insurance policy

WESTMINSTER -- Musa Smith hasn't hit full stride in the NFL yet, but the burly running back is already one of the Baltimore Ravens' most critical insurance policies.<br><br> If calamity strikes Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis, whether it's an unfavorable development in his pending trial on federal drug conspiracy charges or another knee injury, the defending AFC North champions would simply relay the baton. <br><br>

Smith would assume the role of primary ball carrier, working in tandem with third-down back Chester Taylor.

"Hopefully they can lean on me, knowing Musa can produce, and won't be afraid to call on me," Smith said. "I've got to work like I'm going to be the starter, regardless, or I'm outta here. That's just the nature of the business. I have to be on my toes, doing the things that the starters are doing, so I'm ready."

The Ravens are optimistic that last year's third-round draft pick from Georgia possesses the right qualities to emerge as a capable stand-in.

Although Smith only carried the football nine times last season for 31 yards and two touchdowns, the coaching staff is encouraged by his combination of size, speed, tackle-breaking ability, blocking and hands.

"Without any question, he brings a lot of power to his game," running backs coach Matt Simon said. "What separates him is he doesn't have that all-out speed that Jamal has, but he has some real quickness. There are days when Jamal would like to see himself have some of that."

"I think he's becoming a better pro runner. He's a good receiver. He's one of the best young blockers I've ever had. He's more confident. He has more knowledge about what we do."

Beyond learning the Ravens' playbook, Smith, 22, has advanced in terms of his health and conditioning level. He has lost a few pounds, and gained lean muscle mass, reporting at 6-foot, 232 pounds.

Smith has also recovered fully from a knee injury that kept him out for the first five games last season following arthroscopic knee surgery.

"He was in a position last year when he hardly saw the field, but when he did he ran hard," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "If he was our every-down back from the get-go, I would think that the improvement would come quicker."

His rookie season was something of a rude awakening.

Previously, nothing had really deterred him. Not top-flight linebackers in the Southeastern Conference, or homesickness from attending school so far from his Elliottsburg, Pa. hometown.

An NFL playbook was especially daunting for Smith after excelling in the Bulldogs' smash-mouth I-formation.

"Last year it was Japanese to me," Smith said. "This year, I'm speaking Japanese. It's my language right now."

The former Super Prep All-American has had to adjust his expectations for producing long runs. Now, Smith knows that NFL linebackers gain ground quickly and arrive in a nasty mood.

"The real key for him is he's not playing against some of these little schools that Georgia kills on Saturdays, so the holes aren't quite as big," Simon said. "He's got to learn to get in these cracks instead of looking for these big holes. He's a very mature kid. He's fun to coach. He's one of these guys that will never be embarrassed to ask you any question."

The Ravens rated Smith as one of the top 30 players on their draft board a year ago and were delighted that he lasted until the 77th overall selection.

At Georgia, Smith rushed for 2,202 yards and 19 touchdowns before leaving campus after his junior season.

He's one of 11 players in school history to rush for more than 2,000 career yards. His 1,324-yard campaign in 2002 ranks behind only Georgia legends Herschel Walker and Garrison Hearst's best efforts.

"God forbid if something happens to Jamal, I think Musa could step in and do a good job," fullback Alan Ricard said.

As Simon pointed out, Smith doesn't believe he has the NFL all figured out. He's eager to prove himself worthy of the collegiate hype.

"I'm not even close to where I need to be," he said. "They're trying to get me ready to be in a position where they can put me in a game and trust me."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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