Third-and-goal for Graham

Ravens: The team is counting on running back Jay Graham, all healed up as he enters his third season, to realize the potential he showed at Tennessee.

August 20, 1999|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

The injuries are healed and the adaption time is over, meaning the Ravens are expecting running back Jay Graham, who enters his third year in the NFL, to resemble the back who starred at Tennessee.

"Usually, if you are going to be the guy, then you come out of the closet in the third year," Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon said. "At least that has been the history. Jay understands that. We've talked about that at some length. It is time to ante up, or you tend to get classified."

Graham played in only five games last year while dealing with an ankle injury that hampered him most of the season. His 109 rushing yards last season were quite a contrast to the numbers he put up in what was a pass-oriented offense with Peyton Manning at Tennessee.

Graham rushed for 1,438 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior. He scored 11 more touchdowns as a senior and ranks third all time with 2,609 rushing yards for the Volunteers.

He had an up-and-down rookie season in which he made three starts, including rushing for 154 yards against Philadelphia in his first start. Then came the sophomore slump, and now Graham finds himself in a battle with Errict Rhett for a backup role to Priest Holmes.

If he does not win that battle, then Graham, who is in the final year of his contract, may not be around for the opener in St. Louis.

"In previous years, I always thought about football and took it for granted," Graham said. "I just love being out here. I love the game of football."

There is hope that Graham can become the back that he once was with the Volunteers.

The reason for the optimism is that this is the healthiest Graham has been in a while after having knee surgery in December. An ankle injury forced him to miss three games his rookie season. He injured the ankle again last season before the knee injury.

"I was really very scared about that injury situation," Graham said. "During that time out, I thought about playing football and if I was going to play football the same.

"I can remember when it hurt to run. Now it is feeling good. That is the biggest thing I can ask for. Now I need to get everything together and start running the ball the way I know I can."

It should help that he's in a new, more pass-oriented offense under coach Brian Billick. That may sound unappealing to most running backs, but it was a philosophy Graham thrived in at Tennessee.

It was, however, an uneventful debut for Graham in Billick's offense last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, rushing for 13 yards on five attempts. He does have three more preseason games, including tomorrow's against Atlanta, to prove himself.

"He's got some tools," Simon said. "He really makes you want to believe he can help this football team, give you a physical, fast running back. At this point, he needs to prove that he can use all those assets in a game atmosphere in this type of offensive system."

As for what has kept Graham from putting up significant numbers with the Ravens, there are the injuries and also a modification in running style.

Graham, 5 feet 11, 220 pounds, was a north-south runner at Tennessee who used his size and speed to run past and through would-be tacklers.

Since he's been with the Ravens, Graham has been getting himself in trouble trying to out-maneuver defenders. Expect to see less of that from Graham this season.

"I'm trying to be as physical as possible," Graham said. "I'm trying to run the ball as hard as I can. I'm not going to make a person miss me wholly. It might happen in some cases, but not on a consistent basis. I'm working on being a tough runner and not letting my legs stop."

Simon, in his first year as running backs coach, went back to Graham's college days before the season started to evaluate what kind of runner he could be for he Ravens.

Simon saw on tape what cornerback DeRon Jenkins saw up close in practice and games. Jenkins, who was a senior when Graham was a junior at Tennessee, remembers the dominant Graham.

"Jay was a very hard runner, real hard worker," Jenkins said. "He played well and deserved to play well. He continued that same work ethic since he's been in the NFL. He's had a few bad breaks, getting hurt, and not being able to fully reach his potential. But he has time."

Time, and how much he has, is the key. Holmes doesn't think this season is do or die for Graham, or any other running back that reaches his third year.

"You can see in my situation," said Holmes, whose rushed for 1,008 yards in his second year. "I came from free agency, to special teams, to third-down back. Now I have an opportunity to start. Anything can happen, you just have to be open to it."

That's good for Holmes, but how is the man in question approaching a season that will probably decide his future with the Ravens?

"You get to your third, fourth year and you're either going to get there or you're not," Graham said. "That is what I'm trying to do. This year is very important to me."

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent: Atlanta Falcons

Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

When: Tomorrow, 7: 30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Falcons by 4 1/2

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