Ravens' Darling hoping for productive season

OWINGS MILLS – The football evaded Devard Darling's fingertips by a few inches despite an acrobatic dive that would make a swimmer jealous. Darling sprang to his feet, dusted himself off and clapped his hands before running back to the huddle.

A few minutes later, the Baltimore Ravens' second-year receiver angled his sideline pattern away from rookie cornerback Cash Mouton for a crisp reception.

During the Baltimore Ravens' recent passing camp, Darling demonstrated his newfound good health along with the speed and strength that prompted the team to draft him in the third round a year ago.

Now, it's a matter of regaining his timing after missing the majority of last season with a heel injury and proving himself worthy of playing time in the Ravens' revamped receiving corps. After the arrivals of two-time Pro Bowl selection Derrick Mason and first-round draft pick Mark Clayton, Darling is battling Randy Hymes to be the fourth receiver.

"Last year was a frustrating year, but I thank the Lord for it because it allowed me to learn how the game runs on the NFL level," Darling said. "Now, I'm ready to go. I learned from that injury. I'm a better player after that experience. It's all about what I do.

"There's always going to be competition. They brought in Clayton and Mason to beef up the receiving corps and make plays. I always set my goals high, and I'm looking to break into that receiving corps wherever they want me to play."

After starting in the team's preseason opener, Darling incurred plantar fasciatis (tissue damage underneath the foot) and played in three games before being placed on injured reserve Oct. 29.

Darling's reduced status wasn't only triggered by the arrival of Mason and Clayton. Clarence Moore, a 6-foot-6 sixth-round draft pick slated to be the No. 3 receiver this year, emerged with 24 receptions and four touchdown catches last season.

That leaves Darling to try to fend off Hymes for the No. 4 spot, which traditionally doesn't offer a lot of playing time.

"We want to see Devard compete and show us all of the attributes that we saw when we drafted him," receivers coach David Shaw said. "We have a lot of confidence and belief in him, and he's a hard-working guy.

"Look at him, he's one of our best athletes. It's just a matter of running good routes and being consistent. That's what we want to see from Devard."

The Ravens traded a fifth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings to move up six spots to draft Darling in the third round.

In two seasons at Washington State after transferring from Florida State after his brother's death, Darling caught 104 passes for 1,630 yards and 18 touchdowns. Darling left school after a junior campaign where he caught 50 passes for 830 yards and seven touchdowns. Then, he proceeded to have an extremely abbreviated rookie year.

He caught one pass for 7 yards in the preseason. He grabbed two catches for a total of 5 yards in the regular season.

The injury was the major issue, a painful problem that wasn't completely alleviated until a few months ago.

"It was bad, man," Darling said. "It almost gave me a stress fracture."
Strengthening his foot by running and walking on the sand in his native Bahamas along with strenuous rehabilitation at the Ravens' training complex, Darling's health is no longer a cause for concern.

Already one of the strongest receivers on the team – the 6-foot-1 Darling can bench press 350 pounds and cover 40 yards in 4.4 seconds – he has bulked up to 218 pounds.

"It's nothing drastic, I added a few pounds of muscle and lost some fat, so my physique changed," said Darling, who supplements his workout regimen by running with his girlfriend, a high school track and field coach.

For Darling, the major challenge is how much ground can he make up while receiving less practice repetitions because of his place on the depth chart. He's essentially starting all over again while trying to impress new offensive coordinator Jim Fassel.

"I'm just glad to be back on the field and I just want to go out there and catch the ball and prove to the coaches that I deserve to play," Darling said. "You have to bring your ‘A' game every time. I've set my goals high.

"I want to contribute on special teams and be out there at receiver whenever my number is called. I know what I can do and I can't wait to show people what I'm all about."
NOTE: Running back Jamal Lewis will be released today from a federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., after concluding a four-month sentence. Lewis pleaded guilty last November to using a cellular phone to try to set up a cocaine deal in the summer of 2000.

Lewis is scheduled to report Friday afternoon to an Atlanta halfway house for the next two months, and must also perform 500 hours of community service.

The 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year will hold a press conference Friday morning at an Atlanta hotel that will be attended by team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach Brian Billick and senior vice president Kevin Byrne.

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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