As soon as the Ravens drafted Jimmy Smith with the 27th pick in this year's draft, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano got on the phone with the young cornerback and told him to plan on matching up with the opposing team's top wide receiver every week.
"That's why we got you," Pagano told him. "We've had elite, shutdown corners in the past, and we just got the next one."
Unfortunately for Smith, he hasn't gotten the chance to make a real run at that top, shutdown cornerback spot just yet. Multiple injuries have set Smith back, and the strong play of fellow cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams have relegated the rookie to playing in nickel situations as the team's fifth defensive back.
But with Smith continuing to progress and Webb appearing unlikely to play tonight against the Chargers because of a toe injury, the Ravens' top 2011 draft pick might be called on to match up against one of the top wide receivers in the game in Vincent Jackson. And Smith - a California native - will get to do it all with 40-50 of his family members and friends in attendance.
"I feel confident, I always feel confident," Smith said this week. "A corner with no confidence is a corner who's getting beat. I feel very confident that I can step in and do a good job."
Many fans, and probably some people within the Ravens' organization, as well, had pictured Smith starting as one of the team's top two corners far earlier than Week 15 of this season. (Smith has been listed as a starter the last two weeks, but it's been because the Ravens have opened in their nickel package.) Given Smith's impressive physical abilities and knowledge of the game, he was expected to come in and contribute early on, even without the benefit of having team minicamps, which were washed out by the NFL lockout over the summer.
But Smith suffered a groin injury early in training camp, which caused him to miss valuable practice time and dropped him down on the depth chart. The Colorado product was able to return to the field in time for the Ravens' regular season opener, but he immediately suffered a high ankle sprain on Baltimore's first kickoff of the game, knocking him out for the next six weeks.
Now, Smith is healthy and contributing, and while he's had his share of rookie mistakes, his play has continued to improve, and he's recorded two interceptions and five passes defensed in the Ravens' last four games.
"I feel like I'm getting a way better grasp of the defense," Smith said. "That's what you really need as a rookie or anyone playing in their first year. Once you feel comfortable, that's when you start making the plays that you want to make. That's where I'm at right now, I'm getting really comfortable."
Of all the weeks for Smith to possibly get his first significant playing time, this is a perfect one for it. When the rookie takes the field tonight at San Diego's Snapdragon Stadium, he'll be only an hour from his hometown of Colton, CA., and he'll see his best friend and former high school teammate, Shareece Wright, on the other sideline in a Chargers uniform.
More importantly from a football standpoint, Smith's 6-foot-2, 210-lb. frame will also be the perfect complement to a Chargers receiving corps which features two 6-foot-5 guys in Jackson and Malcom Floyd and a 6-foot-4 tight end in Antonio Gates.
"These are really big dudes," Smith said. "I'm considered a big corner, so these dudes have to be considered huge as far as receivers. They can run as well. When you watch them on film, they're big and they can move pretty well.
"They're a great passing team. I'm a corner in the NFL. I want them to pass the ball. This is one of those games, it's a game you would circle. A cornerback like this and receivers like that, it's a challenge. It's me against them."