Webster defines patience

Football: Larry Webster and the Ravens believe the time may be right for the perennial backup defensive tackle to graduate to a starting role.

June 09, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Larry Webster understands why people tend to forget about him. For most of his six NFL seasons, Webster has lived fairly anonymously in the game's trenches. For most of his career, he has been a backup on someone's defensive line.

Ravens officials say a change is in order for Webster. They say the replacement for tackle James Jones, who gave them two outstanding seasons before leaving for Detroit via free agency in February, is sitting right here in the 6-foot-5, 300-pound form of Webster.

Webster agrees. Although he acknowledges his inexperience as a starter -- a role he has filled only 19 times in his 71 career games -- Webster says the time has come to use his strength, size and knowledge of the game to seize an opportunity he has craved.

"An opportunity like this comes along, and the question is, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to grab it and run with it, or are you going to fall by the wayside?" Webster said.

"I have a chance to be a big factor here, and it's going to be no-holds barred with me. This is my seventh year. I'm not getting younger. I've got younger guys chasing me. I want to open everybody's eyes. I want the coaches to have the utmost confidence in me, because I have the utmost confidence in myself."

Webster looked down a few lockers to second-year tackle Lional Dalton's spot, then gestured toward the spaces occupied by Martin Chase and Larry Fitzpatrick. Players like them represent the future on the Ravens' interior line. But besides veteran tackle Tony Siragusa, only Webster brings more experience than that young trio put together.

Webster has learned a few lessons. After ending an excellent collegiate career at Maryland, the Miami Dolphins selected him in the third round of the 1992 draft, then spent three seasons trying to find a position for him. During a span in which Miami switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, Webster played every spot on the line. The bright spot was that he started a career-high nine games in 1993.

In 1995, Webster took the free-agency route to Cleveland, where different troubles began. First, after an outstanding preseason, Webster was dealt a six-week suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. A year later, after the Browns had moved to Baltimore, Webster violated the policy once more, and found himself staring at a one-year suspension.

He spent the 1996 season working at a General Motors plant in Newark, Del., not far from his home in Elkton. Upon his reinstatement by the NFL in July 1997, Webster returned to the game with newfound appreciation for his craft.

"Sometimes when I'm at home, I'll walk outside, get on my hands and knees, look at the sky and kiss the ground," said Webster, 30. "I thank God for giving me this opportunity to get back in the game. And now I have a chance to start."

Webster played like a rejuvenated man in 1997, when he collected a career-high 34 tackles playing behind Jones and Siragusa.

His 1998 season started on a bad note. Midway through training camp, Webster tore a hamstring while doing some extra running after practice. It bothered him for much of the season. Webster finished with 15 tackles, his lowest since his rookie year.

Perhaps because he senses the inevitable progress of Dalton and Chase, Webster has worked harder than usual during the off-season. He trimmed considerable fat from his diet, hired a personal trainer and hit the weights and conditioning grind in January, about a month ahead of his normal schedule.

Defensive line coach Rex Ryan says the Ravens will be just fine with a healthy Webster.

"Everybody thinks there's this big void [with the departure of Jones], but we feel very comfortable with Larry Webster," Ryan said. "He's a good football player who works his butt off. He's not as flamboyant as a lot of players. He's not an unknown commodity around here. He's a quiet team leader who cares more about winning than his own personal glory. He's going to be better than a lot of people expect."

NOTES: The Ravens went through the second straight two-hour practice of minicamp, with temperatures hovering in the mid-90s. Coach Brian Billick was pleased with the team's endurance in the heat. "We're clearly in better shape [compared with the first minicamp five weeks ago], which is to be expected. I think we have a solid, basic understanding of the offense, not the nuances yet. We'd like to hit training camp in a dead sprint, and I think we can." Reserve safety Bennie Thompson, who rarely plays a down on defense anymore, drew some cheers when he picked off a pass by rookie free-agent quarterback Jason Maas. The team ran a series of 100-yard sprints at the end of the workout, and the most impressive runner was wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, who pulled away from a pack of receivers to wrap up his day's work.

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