Baxter eager to prove himself

Gary Baxter understands the path in front of him. His frustration has vanished, leaving behind a motivation to prove his capabilities. He's no longer a confused rookie with nagging injuries that kept him on the periphery of the Baltimore Ravens' secondary last season. Entering his second season, his first as a starting cornerback in place of the departed and enriched Duane Starks, Baxter feels like he's returned home again.

Baxter's renewed comfort level springs from being shifted back to cornerback, a move prompted by Starks signing an offer sheet with the Arizona Cardinals and the decision by Baltimore to select All-American safety Ed Reed in the first round of the NFL Draft.

While questions abound about the wisdom of thrusting a player who hasn't started a single NFL game into the lineup opposite veteran cornerback Chris McAlister, Baxter hopes to silence the skeptics with performance.

The Ravens have little choice in this matter. Baxter is the only player on the roster other than special teams ace James Trapp with the proper credentials.

What the Ravens' second-round draft choice last season from Baylor faces beyond the minor problem of a mild broken hand that has healed quickly is the attention of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.

They will target him with impunity until he shows he can handle it. Baxter is coming off of a slow rookie season that included a sprained medial collateral ligament and a strained hamstring that limited him to eight games and eight special teams tackles.

Upon Reed's name being announced in April as the Ravens' first choice, Baxter said he started smiling, and he hadn't stopped smiling through all of the club's minicamps. "Last season was very frustrating to me knowing that my whole football career I had never been hurt and I had always played cornerback," said Baxter, who finished four seasons at Baylor with 202 tackles, a school-record 50 pass deflections along with six interceptions. "Coming into the NFL, people have high expectations and mine were even higher.

"Now, I want to show people that I can play on this level, introduce myself to the NFL and show fans that I'm a player."

Physically, the 6-foot-2, 207-pound Baxter represents the prototype of the cornerback position.

The Tyler, Texas native is larger than most defensive backs and specializes in bump-and-run coverage. He's strong enough to hoist 300 pounds in the bench press for five to six repetitions.

 "My strength is unbelievable," Baxter said. "I never thought I would be this strong."

He has also improved his speed to where he now covers 40 yards in 4.3 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than his clockings coming out of Baylor.

Baxter got faster through innovative speed training back in Texas. His workouts included running with a small parachute attached behind him for wind resistance as well as another exercise where he secured a bungee cord around his waist and sprinted while pulling another person. Rope drills enabled him to stay up on his toes more when running.

 "I got faster even while I got bigger," said Baxter, who has also worked hard at increasing his flexibility to decrease the probability of injury.

The chief question mark being hung on Baxter's game is his ability to come out of the backpedal and then close quickly on a receiver.

The Ravens are thrilled with Baxter's potential. What they want to see now is progress and production.

"He's able to go inside and outside," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of Baxter, who earned all-league status in the Big 12 Conference as a senior with a team-high 96 tackles. "He's comfortable playing in a guy's face, jamming and running with a guy, but he's going to have to get comfortable playing in an off coverage.

"He's excited about playing there and certainly has the physical tools to do it."

 Baxter dismisses criticism of his backpedaling technique. He carries the confidence of someone who was named all-conference three times and was offered a scholarship to Florida State after a blue-chip prep career.

 "I'm not perfect, so, of course, somebody has to say something negative about me," Baxter said. "I don't really think my backpedaling is slow, or that I can't come out of the backpedal. "People that know me know I'm known for press coverage and being physical, so they've never seen me do it. I will take it in a positive way and prove people wrong."

At Baylor, Baxter was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award despite the Bears winning only seven games in four seasons. In college, he was shifted between corner and safety, playing wherever the team needed him most.

Playing for three different head coaches, position coaches and learning three defenses didn't have the greatest effect on Baxter's development. There was a revolving door in the football office, but scouts were still intrigued enough to make Waco, Texas a regular stop on their campus tours.

"Gary's got a lot of talent," said Baylor head coach Kevin Steele, who coached linebackers for the Carolina Panthers. "He can run. He's got a lot of athleticism. The big plus is he's got size, which allows him to be universal in what you ask him to do.

 "He's also got a remarkable upside. He's not a finished product."

Steele lists Baxter's best traits, aside from a polished wardrobe, as his muscular build, long arms and fluid motions in coverage. Despite the pretty-boy image some may infer from his acknowledged fashion jones, Baxter carried a reputation in college as a nasty hitter.

As a senior, Baxter had 11 pass deflections to go along with three tackles for losses, a sack and two forced fumbles. A dozen defensive backs were picked before the Ravens selected Baxter with the 62nd overall pick, and Baxter couldn't be more eager to show what he can do.

 How that attitude will translate into covering receivers like the Pittsburgh Steelers' Plaxico Burress remains to be seen.

"Gary's a big guy, bigger than me, and he's strong, physical and fast with all of the attitude to be a great player," said the 6-1, 206-pound McAlister, a starter ever since Baltimore drafted him with the 10th overall pick in 1999. "He looks really impressive, flying around and making plays, so that's encouraging.

"It's just a matter of how well he can adjust to the speed of the corner position. It's a different world from what safeties do."

Having a short memory is one piece of advice McAlister would offer to Baxter.

"He needs to stay focused early when quarterbacks are checking him out to see what he's got," McAlister said. "You can't dwell on anything that happens on the field, good or bad. You can't let a bad down last long than that down."

If Baxter can make the leap from reserve to effective starter, it will go a long way toward solidifying a secondary that must manufacture three new starters with the losses of Starks and safeties Rod Woodson and Corey Harris. Now, it's Baxter and McAlister holding down the corners, with Reed and Anthony Mitchell manning the safety spots.

 "I know the defense and I'm real comfortable around the guys," Baxter said. "It's all up to me to show what I can do."

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