Now at center for Ravens, it's 'Ghost' with a chance

August 24, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Spooked by their prospects at left guard, the Ravens turned to the supernatural powers of Wally Williams, then replaced him at center with a ghost.

That's what the players called Jeff Mitchell last season -- "The Ghost." He was invisible, all right, a rookie lost for the season two days into the first full week of training camp.

Mitchell, 24, has yet to play a down in the NFL. He is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Yet, the Ravens are ready to stick him in the middle of their vaunted offensive line.

Boo!

The Ravens' decision to start Mitchell at center is an indictment of Ben Cavil at left guard. But it's also a testament to the offensive line's strength, Williams' versatility and, perhaps most of all, Mitchell's perseverance.

The revamped line will perform as a unit for the first time tonight, with Williams expected to play 2 1/2 quarters against Philadelphia. If not for Williams' own vanishing act in training camp, "The Ghost" might never have gotten his chance.

One man's holdout is another man's opportunity, and Mitchell was more impressive at center than Cavil and the other left guard candidates during Williams' 24-day absence.

Remember last season, when Williams missed the first six games with an Achilles' injury? Backup Quentin Neujahr started at center, injured his ankle in Week 2, yielded to first-time center Leo Goeas in Week 3, then played in pain in Week 4.

The Ravens went 3-1.

"Those four games might not be as tough as these four," coach Ted Marchibroda said, referring to the difficult early schedule against Pittsburgh, the New York Jets, Jacksonville and Cincinnati. "But they were four games."

The Ravens had their two best rushing days after Williams returned at center -- 199 yards against Washington on Oct. 26, 204 yards against Philadelphia on Nov. 16. But for now, Marchibroda prefers Williams at left guard, where he replaced Cavil the final two games of last season.

Centers aren't always superior athletes, but they're required to be superior thinkers, calling out blocking assignments. Marchibroda said that Williams needs more time to assume that responsibility in the Ravens' new two-back offense.

Mitchell hasn't played in a meaningful game since breaking his ankle midway through his senior season at Florida, but he's a former All-SEC academic selection who has spent all of training camp absorbing the offense. He could wear down, either physically or mentally. But the Ravens will worry about that later.

"As time goes on, we'll be comfortable," Marchibroda said. "If Mitchell does the job, we'll be in fine shape. If Mitchell doesn't do the job, we'll move Wally to center, and hope the other individuals have improved."

Cavil is too inconsistent. Spencer Folau is too slow. Free agent James Atkins is a backup at best. The Ravens are $1.855 million under the cap, but they don't want to spend on another left guard when they've got Williams.

And when they've got "The Ghost."

If he develops, Mitchell would give Ozzie Newsome back-to-back outstanding fifth-round draft picks. Wide receiver Jermaine Lewis is the other. Defensive tackle Martin Chase could make it three straight.

"If we play as a unit, we don't have to have five superstars," offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Mitch doesn't have to be Dermontti Dawson or Bruce Matthews. We'd settle for a young Tom Nalen."

Nalen, 27, was the Denver Broncos' seventh-round pick in 1994, took over as their starting center in '95 and was part of the unit that throttled Gilbert Brown and the Green Bay Packers in last year's Super Bowl.

Can Mitchell be that good?

"We'll learn in a couple of years," Ferentz said. "But Nalen had to go through his trials and tribulations. He's a guy that came out of the woodwork, a self-made player. There are all kinds of ways to get here. Now it's in Mitch's hands."

Which might not be such a bad thing, considering the progress that Mitchell made in his rehabilitation from a torn ACL -- the same injury that left guard Sale Isaia suffered two days before him last summer.

Isaia and Mitchell became workout partners, close friends. In one of the sport's cruel twists, Isaia went down with another season-ending injury early in training camp, a torn Achilles' tendon. Otherwise, he might be at left guard.

Mitchell said he would have been totally alone last season if not for his new bride, Christine, and his fellow casualty, Isaia.

As it was, he was still a mess.

"I was real depressed," he said. "I didn't even know if I belonged here. I hadn't done anything with the veterans. I spent the whole time in the weight room. I kind of avoided being around the whole team at the same time."

"He was down. He was real down," strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons said. "He was lost, basically. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to act. He didn't know what his place was."

The low point, Mitchell said, occurred when he returned to Gainesville to attend a Florida game in late September, then had his flight canceled when he tried to return on Monday.

"When I came in the next day, Jerry Simmons just tore into me," Mitchell said. "I was like, 'Man, here I am hurt. They're thinking I don't care. They're going to get rid of me.' "

Well, they didn't get rid of him. Little did Mitchell know that he'd appear out of thin air so quickly. Little did the Ravens know that they'd happen upon a ghost.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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