Committee of halfbacks has no chairman Byner to be starter, but Ravens will need others to contribute

August 31, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

It will be halfback by committee for the Ravens this season.

It's not exactly what the coaching staff had in mind, but none of the three halfbacks on the roster created any distance from the others during the preseason.

"You're always more comfortable being able to point at one guy like a Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith and say that's the guy," said running backs coach Al Lavan. "But before this season is over, every one of them is going to have to contribute for us to be successful.

"From the preseason, I learned we need to improve," he said. "I'm pleased, but we've got to continually work on getting better."

Earnest Byner, a 13-year veteran, will start at halfback for the Ravens in the season opener tomorrow against the Oakland Raiders. Byner played sparingly last season, but finished strong filling in for injured Leroy Hoard.

Byner, 33, finished with a career-high 61 receptions for 494 yards and had 432 yards rushing on 115 carries. That's a 3.8 average. Not bad for an old man.

"Byner is the most consistent and reliable player we have," said Lavan. "Every day, he goes out to get better. His performance level is always high and consistent."

Lavan couldn't say the same thing about Hoard. Hoard has struggled since his Pro Bowl 1994 season, when he rushed for 890 yards on 209 carries. The Ravens tried to give him the starting job during preseason, but Hoard had only one good game, against the New York Giants.

One week before the season opener, Hoard was demoted to second team behind Byner.

"I can't do anything but go out there and play," said Hoard, who started 12 games in 1995. "All the other things I can't control. I'll take care of what I can take care of."

Lavan said: "Leroy has to become a more consistent vision runner. He has to have that ability so his high level of speed becomes a factor at the point of attack and he can respond decisively to what is happening. All he can do is work at it."

No. 3 halfback Earnest Hunter, in his second season, still could be the dark horse. He has the most agility and game-breaking ability, but the least experience.

But he has risen slowly and may make his mark as a runner or return specialist.

There are no questions at fullback. The Ravens signed free agent Carwell Gardner on July 20, and he has been the total package with his blocking, running and pass catching.

Scouting report

Strengths: The Ravens have reliable, not flashy runners. The addition of Carwell Gardner has been a big bonus.

Weaknesses: The Ravens' halfbacks have little game-breaking ability. Gardner is the only true fullback on the roster.

Key to success: Earnest Byner and Leroy Hoard need to stay injury-free.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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