September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

2014 NFL preview

Lions cornerback Darius Slay has new number, more confidence

Lions cornerback Darius Slay, left, had reason to smile in the preseason. He played well, made tackles and did not get exposed. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Lions cornerback Darius Slay smiles a lot these days. His game is coming into shape, he feels good about the season and he feels prepared. He also exchanged his number 30 jersey for 23, which brings the biggest smile.

It took a lot of hard work to get that number following his 2013 rookie season. Slay asked veteran Chris Houston for the number last year, but Houston said he wore it as a kid.

When Houston was released this past offseason, Slay still had to earn the number. Others wanted the number, but Slay wanted it to pay tribute to Browns cornerback Joe Haden and NBA stars LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Finally, Slay earned head coach Jim Caldwell’s trust and respect and got the 23 jersey.

“Oh yeah,” Slay said. “I’ve been working hard for that, grinding and being consistent in practice and going out and making the same old plays.”

The Lions have not had an All Pro cornerback since Dre’ Bly in 2004. During a training camp visit this summer Bly predicted Slay will break that streak. The key is taking his mental game from the practice field to the playing field.

“He’s a kid that wants to learn,” Bly told reporters after a training camp practice.

“I think he’s focused, based on what I’ve seen, but he’s a very talented kid. He can move, has good size and he has playmaking ability.”

Slay also has veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis, which helps. Slay started four games last season but lost his job. He appeared unsure of himself and was more liability than playmaker. Slay said he studied the field when he was benched, and that should help this season.

“Yes, I learned,” Slay said. “I never knew when my time would come. You never know what God had planned. So I had it in my mind to get ready in case of injury. I knew I would have to be the one that stepped up.”

The preseason was good for him. He played well, made tackles and did not get exposed. His play was low key but productive. However, that is not his style. Slay wants to make huge splash plays for a defense that needs them.

“I prepared myself for everything,” Slay said. “I am a very confident guy in everything I do. I go out there and compete and play hard on every single play. That boosts my confidence up even more because I have my teammates’ back. They trust me to go out there and keep running.”

Teammates and coaches are high on Slay. He gets another chance to start and to show what he can do. He is more likely to keep his starting job because of experience and the drop-off to the second set of corners.

“I think he is very capable of being a top corner. He has all the tools,” safety Glover Quin said. “He is quick. He is athletic and has great size. I think he is going to take it from the practice field to the game field and play with that same confidence. He needs the mentality that if you throw it my way, I am going to make you pay in some way. If you throw it my way, don’t think you are on vacation.”

Getting praise from Bly energized Slay. He respects him as one of the game’s all-time corners and he does not want to let him down with his new number on display.

“I understand where he is coming from,” Slay said. “I’ve got the potential and I have to talent to do so. I am going to take advantage and use what is around me and my ability to be great.”