There's an air of confidence that surrounds Tom Zbikowski these days.
That's not to say the Ravens' safety ever was without any sort of self-belief; most two-time captains at Notre Dame and Golden Gloves boxers have a decent amount of swagger. (By the way, if you've never seen Zbikowski's professional boxing debut, be sure to check it out. It doesn't last long ... meaning Zibby took care of business early.)
But things are different this year. Entering his third NFL season, Zbikowski looks like a different player than he was in his first two years as a member of the Ravens, and he says he feels like one as well.
"I think I'm at the top of my game right now," Zbikowski says.
That confidence is crucial now, because for at least the first six weeks of the regular season, Zbikowski will be starting for the Ravens at free safety as six-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed watches from the sidelines while on the Physically Unable to Perform list. That journey will begin on Monday night, when the Ravens open the regular season against the Jets.
Whether it was because he knew he'd be counted on to fill in for Reed for part of this year, or not, Zbikowski made major efforts to improve his conditioning this offseason.
The 25-year-old slimmed down to a fit 200 pounds while adding bulk to his neck for added support when making hits. He says he improved his vertical leap, his speed, his endurance and his strength.
The physical upgrades are obviously important, but the improvements when it comes to the mental aspect of the games are just as vital, if not more so. That's where the experience that came from filling in for Reed for four games last year really benefits Zbikowski.
"I think that's the reason why I've grown so much," he told me recently. "It's game reps. Anytime you're just thrown into it, it's a learning curve. You're forced to play with the guys you're playing with. You've got to step up and be ready."
Zbikowski started all four of the Ravens' games in December last season, and he played a vital role in the team's push towards the playoffs. After posting just one tackle from scrimmage though the first 11 games of the season, Zbikowski made a statement in the four contests he started, making 15 tackles, knocking away four passes, and grabbing two interceptions.
"He played so well; I think he gained a lot of confidence," head coach John Harbaugh said at the conclusion of training camp. "He took that confidence, and he's just taken off from there."
Zbikowski easily beat out newcomer Ken Hamlin, a former Pro Bowler himself, for the starting free safety job during training camp with Reed out after offseason hip surgery. Already, through camp and preseason action, Zbikowski says he's seeing improvements in his game over last season.
"I feel like I'm not thinking as much, just seeing things and reacting," he says. "Now, I'm thinking before the play as compared to during the play. When you're first getting time, you think during the play a little bit because you're not used to seeing everything. Like [secondary] coach [Chuck] Pagano always says, you go through the 'what ifs'. What if this guy motions? What happens if this guy does it?
"If you get that done before the snap, everything slows down and you can play the way you want to play."
While the news that Reed would go on PUP to start the season as he rehabs his injured hip surprised many people, it didn't send Ravens fans or those at The Castle running for the hills.
After his performance last year, Zbikowski has confidence in himself, and Ravens coaches and the Charm City faithful believe he can get the job done as well.