Ready Ravens break camp Quality of practices could be harbinger of successful season

August 20, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The Ravens ended training camp at Western Maryland College after 31 days yesterday, and the team has fewer questions heading into the start of the season than in its previous two years in Baltimore.

Offensively, the Ravens have found two tough running backs to anchor their new two-back set, a new left guard, a surprising rookie wide receiver to complement an old one and a consistent quarterback.

Defensively, the Ravens have had continued success with blitzes, have solid depth at linebacker and on the defensive line and have been encouraged by the development of a young secondary.

Questions? Can first-year player Jeff Mitchell handle the starting center position? How much did the 15-day holdout affect No. 1 draft pick Duane Starks? Will Michael Jackson emerge as the Ravens' go-to receiver? Can veterans Stevon Moore and Rod Woodson hold up in the secondary? Who will emerge as the starting punter, Greg Montgomery or Kyle Richardson?

There is one conclusion thus far: Because the Ravens are no longer in salary cap jail, free-agent acquisitions and the fear of being cut have created fierce competition to produce the best team yet.

"It's been an excellent training camp," said coach Ted Marchibroda. "Everything has been on the positive side. We've had no major injuries, and the team is developing unity and camaraderie. I am happy with where the draft choices are, especially the first two. The new guys have adjusted well and in the past two games we have played efficiently."

This training camp has been filled with intensity since the opening day July 20 when middle linebacker Ray Lewis set the tone by tackling and knocking the helmet off fullback Kenyon Cotton.

A year ago, the Ravens had already penciled in rookie linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper as starters with rookie Kim Herring moving into a starting position later.

The Ravens eventually kept 11 of their 12 draft picks. This year only two of seven picks are definitely on the roster -- Starks, a cornerback from the University of Miami, and Oregon receiver Patrick Johnson, the No. 2 pick.

"A lot of rookies had a chance to make the team last year," said Sharper. "This year we're pretty much set except for a few positions on offense. But there are a lot of guys fighting for spots as backups or on special teams. It's a whole new ballgame around here compared to a year ago."

It all starts with the offensive backfield, where Jim Harbaugh has replaced Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. There were concerns about Harbaugh's arm strength after an unimpressive mini-camp June, but he has quietly put his mark on this team with his blue-collar approach.

In two games, Harbaugh has completed 19 of 25 passes for 186 yards. He has been able to throw both short and long accurately. The best may be yet to come.

"He has progressed well," said quarterbacks coach Don Strock. "It's a loose system for him and he has picked it up real well. He made a few mistakes in the last game as far as picking up blitzes, but that has to be expected. He is still getting adjusted to new receivers and patterns. Although he was under Ted in Indy, it's still new for him."

Both fullback Roosevelt Potts and halfback Errict Rhett, signed during the off-season, have played well, even though Potts has been slowed by a knee injury.

Rhett has gained 136 yards on 32 carries and seems to be closing the gap on second-year player Jay Graham, who has 52 yards on 18 carries.

Rhett, though, needs to learn the offense better and how to run when not in the I-formation. Marchibroda still likes Graham.

"Errict Rhett has been what I pictured him to be and more," said Al Lavan, running backs coach. "He leaves it on the field in every way. Jay's numbers aren't as impressive, but he has run well."

"Jay is going to be all right," said Marchibroda. "He needs a game like the one he had against Philadelphia last year so he can gain some confidence."

Tight end Eric Green has gained the confidence of both Harbaugh and Marchibroda, and he should be a major factor. Wide receiver Jermaine Lewis showed he will have no problem moving from the slot to an outside position, and Johnson was the most impressive rookie in training camp. He'll be the third receiver to replace either Lewis or Jackson if either goes down with an injury. Floyd Turner has moved ahead of Ryan Yarborough as backup to James Roe in the slot.

L Jackson missed the last week of camp with a shoulder injury.

"I thought Michael had a pretty good training camp," said Marchibroda. "He has been a little banged up and missed the last game, but he has played well. Due to the nature of this offense he won't catch as many passes as he has in the last two years, but the receptions will be big ones, catches that are significant."

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