Lewis is eager to play LB part After signing deal, rookie sure he can fill middle for Ravens

July 16, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

With his casual attire augmented by gold earrings, a gold necklace and gold sunglasses, linebacker Ray Lewis flashed a golden smile yesterday, when he reported to the Ravens' training camp after signing a five-year contract worth $5 million.

Starting today, when about 30 rookies -- including top draft pick Jonathan Ogden -- take the field with a small group of veterans for the team's first practice at Western Maryland College, Lewis will take the first steps toward what team officials believe will justify his being drafted late in the first round.

Lewis, who will collect a $1.3 million signing bonus, is expected to start at middle linebacker in the Ravens' 4-3 defense. He will step into the spot vacated by veteran Pepper Johnson, who was released last week.

Lewis, who decided not to participate in the Ravens' two-week, rookie orientation in June without a contract, sounded thrilled to be putting on pads again. He said the contract negotiation process wore on him. Then again, a seven-figure bonus check cured some of his anxiety.

"It was a happy time. My son had his first birthday on June 4, and I knew I was about to make so much money," Lewis said. "But your life is on hold. You're working out, studying plays, but you're basically just sitting and waiting.

"When I heard Pepper Johnson was released, I was ecstatic. I know my capabilities as a linebacker, and I know what I can do as a middle linebacker. It's time to show them what I can do."

The Ravens are counting on Lewis, 21, to be as precocious as he was at the University of Miami throughout his three-year, All-America career. In his first game as a true freshman against Colorado in 1993, Lewis made 17 tackles. He went on to record 388 tackles as a Hurricane.

The main question revolving around Lewis, 6 feet 1, has been his weight. Is he big enough to make the transition to the middle in the NFL? His weight has been listed as low as 220, and as high as 235. Lewis said he recently stepped on a scale and registered 243.

"People say he's too small. He's not too small," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who talked with Lewis on the phone almost daily during the negotiations. "If he weighed 228, he'd be good enough to play. He doesn't have to work on anything physically. He has to work on learning about what we do. Ray has never acted like a freshman. I think he'll earn the No. 1 spot. That's why we drafted him."

Said director of football operations Ozzie Newsome: "Ray is a very confident kid. When he steps out on the field and feels like he belongs, that's when he'll take off."

Lewis said he didn't feel like a freshman at Miami, and he isn't about to start feeling intimidated now by the NFL. He advised reporters that he will spend as much time on the field talking as he will spend hitting opposing blockers and tackling ball-carriers.

"All my life, my mouth and my body have worked together. I talk mess at practice, in the locker room, at lunch," Lewis said. "If you ever see me play a quiet game, you know something is wrong."

All is not completely right in Lewis' world. All one had to do yesterday was look at the picture on his T-shirt.

It was his close friend and old roommate and teammate, Marlin "Red" Barnes, who was murdered in Miami the week before Lewis was drafted in April. On draft day, a few hours before the Ravens called Lewis' name, Barnes was buried. Lewis drove past the church, but could not bring himself to attend the funeral.

"I couldn't look at him lying there, not being able to speak to me," Lewis said.

Lewis said he still has sleepless nights thinking about Barnes, and still beeps his friend at night, only to receive no return call.

The memory of Barnes is very much alive with Lewis. He brought 10 of those T-shirts to camp, along with a handful of pictures of Barnes.

As Lewis talked about Barnes, his easygoing flamboyance began to fade. He stared out of his hotel room window, rubbed his eyes and fought back tears.

"I can't release the pain that is inside me," Lewis said. "I'm dedicating my football career to him, especially this year. He'll be with me every day."

NOTES: Ogden is scheduled to fly into Baltimore at 6: 45 this morning, in time to sign a seven-year contract that is potentially worth $19.5 million and includes an average salary of $2.2 million and a signing bonus of $6.8 million. Ogden is expected to be on the field for the team's first practice at 9 a.m.. . . . The Ravens were close last night to agreeing to terms with wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, their fifth-round draft pick out of Maryland, but second-round pick DeRon Jenkins, a cornerback out of Tennessee, was not expected to be signed before today. . . . Quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and Eric Zeier are among the veterans who reported early.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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