Jimmy Smith responding well to a bigger challenge

AP

The Ravens have been willing to trust an organizational philosophy of “next man up.”

But for it to work, the understudies have to perform when it’s time.

Former first-rounder Jimmy Smith seems poised to take that step, earning favorable reviews as he competes for a starting cornerback job.

A lot of growth from Jimmy,” secondary coach Teryl Austin said, via Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun. “He seems like a different guy right now. I think playing as well as he did the last two playoff games coming off the injury and coming into the offseason knowing that this is a big year for him.

“And he’s really gotten himself into pretty good shape. Really studying, doing a lot of things that [he] maybe would have taken for granted the first two years. He’s really stepped that up, and it’s really shown in how he’s played and how he’s progressed this offseason.”

Smith’s coverage of 49ers wide receiverMichael Crabtree late in the Super Bowl was a good indicator of his talent, but the praise of coaches indicates a change in approach.

Smith said he’s lost 10 pounds after training in a boxing program, and there are no signs of a lingering groin injury or the sports hernia surgery which slowed him last season.

“He has taken major steps towards being all the player that we wanted him to be,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Jimmy’s biggest issue has been, I think two things: They never threw at him in college. They didn’t even test him. He has been tested a lot more here, and that’s helped him. And he’s been injured quite a bit. Being healthy now is really going to help him.”

At the moment, he’s competing with veteran Corey Graham for the starting job opposite Lardarius Webb, but both should play significant snaps, regardless who wins.

“Anybody can emerge and be a starter,” Smith said. “I’ve been wanting to starter since Day One, but God had a plan. I’m still just learning, trying to become a better player in the classroom and on the field, trying to diagnose plays and read things and be a student of the game.

“You always want to go uphill. You never want to digress. I’m trying to pick up where I left off and do even better. I feel like I’ve improved. Everything is a work in progress. I’m still trying to climb the mountain. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’ll be there.”

After letting Cary Williams walk in free agency, the Ravens need him to be.