Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome thought that Ralph Staten might be a player when he saw him playing linebacker in a high school all-star game.
Four years later, a position change and snap-crackle-pop tackles on Eddie George have brought signs that Ralph Staten has become that player.
In a bleak 6-8-1 season, the rookie strong safety has been one of the bright spots for the Ravens in the past few weeks since taking over for injured veteran Stevon Moore.
Above all, the seventh-round draft pick from Alabama has made an impression as a hard hitter.
"Most of the time, you can tell if I got a good hit on someone," Staten said. "You hear them groan or something; you can just tell."
One of the players who felt the impact was George, the Tennessee Oilers' top running back who outweighs Staten by at least 30 pounds. George had to be carried off the field twice last Sunday.
"That's a God-given talent that you can't teach," Ravens defensive backs coach Al Reynolds said of Staten's hitting ability. "We knew coming in that he could do that. It's one thing knowing he can do it in college, but then for him to come into the NFL and do it to someone like George, that's impressive."
While standing 6 feet 3, Staten weighs 205 pounds, light for a strong safety, even lighter for a linebacker, the position he played for four years at Alabama.
As the draft approached, Staten was considered too small to play linebacker and too inexperienced to play in the secondary, and various disciplinary problems at Alabama along with a missed pre-draft workout made him too much of a wild card.
And yet, four picks from the end of the April draft, the Ravens took Staten, a decision based on videotapes and the Alabama roots of Newsome and Phil Savage, the team's college scouting director.
The Ravens, along with everyone else in the NFL, were interested in Staten's Alabama teammate, Dwayne Rudd.
But on film, the player who stood out was Staten, the player who impressed Newsome as he watched the Mississippi-Alabama high school all-star game four years earlier and who had grown up near Mobile, where Savage grew up. "He was a linebacker and he showed up game after game, play after play; just seemed more consistent than Rudd," Savage said. "The difference was that Rudd had the size, the speed, the measurables."
Plus, Staten had run into trouble with then-coach Gene Stallings and was suspended twice -- once kicked out of spring practice for a violation of dorm policy and another time for missing a team meeting.
Then he missed the NFL combine in Indianapolis on account of his grandmother's illness, a reason that some scouts couldn't understand.
"She's always been there for me, so I felt that family should come first," Staten said. "I feel like the scouts were questioning my heart, but I still feel that I did the right thing."
Savage said, "When you're invited to the combine, you're expected to be there. He missed it and that raised a red flag for a lot of people."
As for the problems at Alabama, Newsome and Savage were assured through their sources down south that Staten wouldn't be a problem.
Nor would the transition from linebacker to safety. During Senior Bowl practices in January, Staten worked with Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer and defensive backs coach Kurt Schottenheimer. According to Newsome, "They said that every day, he got better.
"So with the urging of Phil, Alvin [Reynolds] and Marvin [Lewis, defensive coordinator], we decided to pull the trigger."
With a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash at a pre-draft workout in Tuscaloosa, Staten's speed was taken care of. From playing linebacker, Staten developed the hands, technique and knack for finding the ball that makes him a fine tackler.
And so far, he spends most of the time covering tight ends -- shutting down Frank Wycheck last Sunday -- the same as at Alabama.
The only question was whether he would pick up playing the deep middle of the field and his half of the field, according to Reynolds. So far he has answered that question nicely, picking off a pair of passes in the Ravens' victory over Seattle.
Not bad for a player who Newsome had simply hoped would be one of the 53 to come out of camp.
"It's been good to give the coaches a chance to see me play, to know that they have confidence in me," Staten said.
"He's done just about everything we've asked him to do," Newsome said. "It's important that he continue to do that in the off-season. That's where his ability to hold up is going to go a long way in determining how long he plays in the National Football League."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals
Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati
When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Bengals by 6 1/2
Pub Date: 12/20/97