Class gets under way for Ravens' McAlister

Team's No. 1 pick learns stakes higher at training camp

July 30, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

It took a 10-year veteran only a few minutes yesterday to teach the No. 1 draft pick a major lesson about life in the NFL.

Chris McAlister, a cornerback out of the University of Arizona and the Ravens' top rookie, had pretty much had his way with receiver Floyd Turner in two previous minicamps, when Turner was admittedly overweight. But when Turner blew by McAlister for a touchdown on a post pattern on the first day of training camp yesterday, McAlister learned that the stakes were higher now.

"It was a whole new ballgame out there today," said McAlister. "The speed of the game is a lot different than minicamp. It's cutting season. No one is passive once you hit the field."

When asked if Turner had turned his game up a notch from minicamp, McAlister said: "Who is he?"

When the reporter replied, "No. 88," McAlister smiled and said: "Oh yeah, him, I have to say yes."

McAlister, the No. 10 draft selection overall, was welcomed to the real world yesterday. Fans and media followed his every move. After his first NFL practice ended, microphones were shoved in his face. These kind of things happen when a player signs a contract worth $7.1 million with incentives.

"There is a major difference to what I faced at Arizona," said McAlister. "There, our practices were closed to fans and the media. Here, practices are structured differently. There are more individual periods."

McAlister's first day went as expected. He was hesitant at times, especially early in the practice. He spent a lot of time getting instruction from secondary coach Steve Shafer and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. He had a tough morning against Turner, who has made a few other cornerbacks look bad while catching 281 passes in his career.

But McAlister's natural ability is clearly evident, almost frightening at times, such as when he knocked down a Scott Mitchell pass intended for receiver Kendrick Nord yesterday. The closing speed is there along with the ability to recover. Press coverage -- jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage -- will eventually become his forte.

McAlister is fortunate to have one of the best cornerbacks in the history of the league as his tutor. He was Rod Woodson's shadow yesterday. Woodson has moved from cornerback to safety this season.

"Rod Woodson is a great person to be around for advice," said McAlister. "He is basically like a father on the field to me. He is telling me how to read splits, to read the quarterbacks and use his body parts for keys."

McAlister also has another teacher in starting left cornerback Duane Starks. Like McAlister, Starks was the No. 10 overall pick in the draft. Like McAlister, he was also under scrutiny the first day he attended training camp.

"I told him it's training camp, to pace yourself, but work hard," said Starks. "I told him to take everything in as a learning process. The more you know, the more confident you play. There is less hesitation.

"I think Chris was well-informed about what was going to happen to him today. I told him that some fans were going to like him, some weren't. That this was his occupation and he had to do the best that he could. He has to play for himself first, his family second and then the fans."

The Ravens have McAlister listed on the second team behind DeRon Jenkins, but teams don't pick players No. 1 to sit on the bench. It's inevitable that McAlister will replace Jenkins. Once he does, the Ravens could have the most promising pair of young cornerbacks in the league.

"I thought his retention from minicamp was pretty good today," said Lewis. "He knows he's involved in competition for the starting job. Brian [Billick, head coach] hasn't set a timetable as to who's going to be the starter on opening day.

"Chris needs to focus more on individual techniques and not just solely rely on ability. He's going to need more focus at this level than he'ss used to."

McAlister said: "I think I'm in the hunt for the starting position. They drafted me to go out and make big plays, and that's what I plan to do."

Ravens camp

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Directions from Baltimore: Take I-695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 west to Route 31 south. At blinking yellow light, turn left (Route 31); at first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. Proceed up the hill. The entrance to parking is on the left.

Information: 410-261-FANS

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