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CONFIDENCE ELEVATES CLEMENTS

Nate Clements is not one to come out and tell people how good he is. He'd just as soon leave that to coaches and teammates.

But if you ask the Buffalo Bills' rookie cornerback about his ability, he won't mince words.

"I feel I can play with anybody," Clements said. "I'm as good as the man across from me, if not better."

That might sound a bit cocky for a guy who has played in a grand total of two NFL games, but would you expect anything less from a cornerback?

Those guys are the most exposed players on the field. Every big play or mistake they make is out in the open for the whole world to see. If a cornerback lacks confidence, he may as well take up basket weaving as an occupation.

Clements has every reason to feel good about himself right now. He was one of the few bright spots on defense during the Bills' 42-26 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

Clements snagged his first career interception and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown to give the Bills a 7-0 lead and had another wiped out due to a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Antoine Winfield.

Like the rest of the secondary, Clements made his share of mistakes. But he is showing why he was taken in the first round of the draft last April.

"Nate stepped up and played pretty good," Bills coach Gregg Williams said. "Players play the game, and he's doing very well."

Perhaps no one is more proud of Clements than Winfield, who has served as a mentor of Clements' since they played together at Ohio State.

"I think I was more excited about Nate's touchdown than he was," said Winfield, who was the first to mug Clements in the end zone. "Nate is a great talent. I think the key is his confidence. You're going to get beat from time to time in this league. The key is how you react to it, and Nate always learned from his mistakes and responded with big plays."

Clements was far from an overnight sensation with the Bills. He had to pay his dues like every other hotshot rookie.

It took some time to learn a new defense and adjust to the speed of the pro game. But he's proven to be a quick study.

"I think I've picked up the game pretty well," Clements said. "I'm not where I want to be yet. I still have a lot to learn, but I'll get there."

The popular belief was the Bills drafted Clements to join Winfield in the starting lineup. That hasn't happened yet because Ken Irvin has done well enough to hang on to his job.

But it seems only a matter of time until Clements becomes a starter.

"That's going to be up to the coaches," he said. "But eventually, I do plan on starting in the NFL. When the coaches feel I'm ready to take that responsibility, I'll go in and show they made the right decision. Until then, I'm going to continue to play the way I know I can play."

Bills defensive backs coach Pat Thomas thinks Clements is good enough right now to start for most teams in the NFL. But the Bills have the luxury of bringing him off the bench. It took Clements most of training camp and the preseason to pass free agent Lance Brown as the team's No. 3 corner. Thomas saw that as a blessing because it allowed the Bills to bring him along slowly.

"We will reap the benefits from that for years to come," Thomas said. "I've seen a lot of young DBs get thrown out there into the fire and go downhill. Nate has been able to get out there and gain some valuable experience in the preseason and regular-season games. He's gotten a chance to see when offenses are going to attack you and how they are going to attack you.

"We feel that he has matured in the system faster than we thought he would as far as learning what to do, refining his techniques and things of that nature. He is at a point where he's gotten a chance to get a true feel for what the NFL is all about."

Clements' presence allows the Bills to slide Winfield, the team's best corner, inside against slot receivers in the nickel and dime packages. The Bills have no problem leaving Clements one-on-one with an outside receiver.

"Nate's not afraid to play anybody tight and close," Williams said.

At 5-foot-11 and a solid 195 pounds, Clements is a cornerback with the body of a running back. He can outmuscle receivers, as evidenced when he took the ball away from Colts rookie receiver Reggie Wayne for what should have been his second interception.

Clements also has the speed of a wide receiver and hits like a linebacker. But the reason the Bills drafted him was his ability to line up against a receiver and cover him all by himself all over the field.

"Nate was the first DB taken for a reason," Thomas said. "He has the ability to be one of the best in the league. He is a football player, period. He can cover, he can tackle, he can communicate. He can do it all."

Just as impressive is Clements' ability to diagnose plays. On his interception, he read Colts receiver Marvin Harrison's pass route perfectly, broke on the ball and never broke stride en route to the end zone.

"He has natural instincts at the point of attack with his hand-eye coordination," Thomas said. "That's what you look for in defensive backs. I feel confident that Nate will continue to be a playmaker."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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