Alexander getting grip on potential Big plays highlight breakthrough season for Ravens receiver

7 TDs are career best

He puts disappointing '95 season behind him

November 09, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Derrick Alexander has arrived. Again. And this time, the Ravens' young, quiet, productive wide receiver could be at the top of his game to stay.

That's the word from the coaches and teammates who have watched Alexander go from a dynamic rookie in 1994 to a sophomore disappointment last season to a big-play force again in his third year.

More than halfway through his breakthrough season, Alexander believes it, too. Gone are the days when Alexander found himself buried beneath former coach Bill Belichick's thumb with the Cleveland Browns in 1995, the year in which he lost his starting job to free-agent signee Andre Rison, and eventually tumbled past Keenan McCardell to fourth on the depth chart at his position.

Rison and McCardell are now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team Alexander and the Ravens will face tomorrow as both teams (3-6) attempt to climb out of the AFC Central Division's basement.

And Alexander, 6 feet 2, 195 pounds of soft hands, slick moves and deceptive speed, is where he and the Ravens organization hoped he would be a little sooner. No longer is he just the guy who lines up at the opposite end from veteran Michael Jackson, the leader of the receiving corps.

Alexander is proving himself to be a bundle of trouble for opposing defenses. With 41 catches for 710 yards -- an impressive 17.3-yard average -- and a career-high seven

touchdown receptions, he ranks among the AFC leaders in all four categories.

"I'm doing things I've never done before," Alexander said. "I'm running routes better, adding new moves to my routes, putting more into my practice effort. I'm getting the playing time, and the coaches are showing me they think I can get the job done."

From quarterback Vinny Testaverde to offensive tackle Tony Jones to receivers coach Mike Sheppard, the word is that Alexander's emergence can be attributed to a more workmanlike approach to his job.

As a rookie, he made a splash as a first-round pick out of Michigan, replacing the injured Mark Carrier and racking up 828 yards receiving -- the most by a Cleveland Browns rookie since Paul Warfield 30 years earlier.

Alexander then came to his second training camp feeling a little too secure about his future. With Rison added at great expense and the presence of the hard-charging McCardell, that was Alexander's first mistake. Alexander's fortunes began to sink during the preseason. Then a midseason leg injury kept him out of action for a month. He ended a disastrous second year with only 15 catches.

"It was a casual-approach deal," Sheppard said. "One thing Derrick has had difficulty with is he's so talented, he's better than most of the people he's had to compete with. It's all been too easy for him. The No. 1 thing about him this year is his maturity level is so high. He made up his mind that working harder to become a better player was better than any other alternative."

Said Jones: "He's grown up a lot. He knows what being a pro is all about now. He's more businesslike."

Alexander concedes that his forgettable second year was a catalyst -- along with the loss of McCardell to free agency and the release of Rison -- to his comeback. "It showed me that everything wasn't going to be given to me. I had to work for it," he said. "And by letting Keenan and Andre go, they were saying I was going to be their guy."

When he reported to training camp in the best shape of his NFL career, Alexander sent his first message that a new guy was wearing No. 82.

The way he handled a personal tragedy sent another message. Midway through camp, Alexander suddenly had to fly home to Detroit, where his 33-year-old brother had fallen seriously ill. Garrett died a day later, and Derrick spent the next 10 days grieving with his family.

When he returned to camp, Alexander stepped into the lineup two days later in a preseason game against the Giants, played well, and marched forward. He opened the season as a starter and never looked back. When he beat Rod Woodson, Pittsburgh's elite cornerback, over the middle for a 17-yard touchdown in Week 2, his confidence began to take off.

Since then, the big plays have kept on coming from Alexander. Such as the catch he made on a crossing pattern and turned into a 64-yard touchdown in a 17-10 victory over the Saints. And the way he abused veteran cornerback Eugene Daniel for two touchdowns against the Colts.

He has made the most of third-down chances all year. Five of Alexander's 10 third-down receptions have gone for touchdowns, and he is averaging a league-high 21.1 yards per catch on third down.

Early in the season, defenses would automatically double-team Jackson and take their chances with Alexander in single coverage. Not now.

"I realize that the practice effort has got to be there," Alexander said. "A dropped pass in practice is a big thing, because you can carry that into a game."

Testaverde said that conviction is what has helped Alexander refine his game.

"[Alexander] has picked up the pace of his work ethic," Testaverde said. "He's the only one who can limit his ability. He's just starting to come into his own. I think he'll be a big-time player in this league."

NOTES: Defensive end Rob Burnett, out for the season, had the anterior cruciate ligament on his right knee repaired in successful surgery yesterday. In addition to cornerback Antonio Langham (hamstring), outside linebacker Jerrol Williams (knee) probably will not play against Jacksonville, meaning Keith Goganious could get the nod.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: Jacksonville (Fla.) Municipal Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Jaguars by 4

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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