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DAVIE, Fla. -- Sean Smith, who backpedals for a living, began last season with his career headed in the wrong direction.
The lanky cornerback started all 16 games during his rookie year with the Miami Dolphins in 2009, but he was on the bench for their opener last season at Buffalo, and the demotion gave him a jolt.
"I didn't play at all, not one snap," Smith recalled. "It hit me, like, 'I'm really on the sidelines. This is not cool at all.' It was definitely a wake-up call for me."
Smith regained a starting job at midseason and played well as a complement to good friend and fellow cornerback Vontae Davis. They were part of a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per play and sixth in completion percentage.
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The Dolphins' pass-defending partnership formed in 2009 when Davis was drafted in the first round and Smith in the second. Both have struggled at times -- Smith actually became a starter before Davis, who joined the lineup midway through his rookie season and now is the more acclaimed player.
This season, the Dolphins expect both cornerbacks to be cornerstones of the defense. That's fine with Smith and Davis.
"This is Year 3, and it's time for me to take over," Smith said.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and say we're the best tandem in the league," Davis said.
That pronouncement might come as news to the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Both have made the Pro Bowl, while Davis and Smith have not.
But Dolphins coach Tony Sparano likes his cornerbacks, and he likes them cocky.
"They need to play with swagger," Sparano said. "There was a point in time here where they were kind of deer in headlights. They were just learning. They got thrown in there early on, and they had to sink or swim. Right now, I think they both have pretty good confidence."
With contrasting physiques, they go about their jobs differently. The 5-foot-11 Davis stays low to make ferocious tackles, while the 6-3 Smith uses his long arms to get his hands on passes.
Both dropped too many potential interceptions last season, a problem that plagued Miami's defense. Davis broke up 12 passes but made only one interception, and Smith has just one career interception.
Davis wins raves anyway, including last year when he helped the Dolphins stymie Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. Favre didn't know Davis' name but praised him anyway.
"No. 21 I felt like was one of the best corners in this league, especially that no one knows about," Favre said.
Smith, meanwhile, is still trying to shake the label of underachiever. Those three hours stewing on the sideline in Buffalo helped him realize the label was warranted.
"People were like, 'When is he ever going to string it together and prove to us he has grown up and can be the guy for us?' " Smith said. "I would say definitely early on, I didn't show that. Last year, I started understanding this is a business. I had to change something. It's not college anymore. I have to get professional. This is my job, and I take it seriously."
Sparano has observed a more mature and motivated Smith in the weight room, during film sessions and on the practice field, where he keeps mistakes to a minimum.
Now Sparano wants to see a few interceptions.
"Sean's got to catch the ball," Sparano said. "That's going to get him to the next level. When I get the ballot for the Pro Bowl, I don't look at guys and say, 'Man, he really covered well.' I look at the statistics and say, 'That guy has nine interceptions.' Last year, had Sean had taken care of the football, he'd be one of those guys."
Smith and Davis would like to make the trip to the Pro Bowl together. They're good friends who shared a cozy room with two single beds during their first two years of training camp.
This summer, each was given his own room, a reward for achieving veteran status.
"We've come a long way," Davis said. "I did like having Sean around. But I do love the king-size bed, too."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press