Vinson vying for heavier role

Beefed-up Ravens back gets chance on offense

August 26, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Tony Vinson has been through eight training camps covering three NFL teams and two tours of the World League. He has dealt with one major injury and a ton of anxiety.

At the age of 28, Vinson has the look of a survivor. And with each tackle he makes on special teams, with each block he throws as a beefed-up fullback, with each preseason catch he makes out of the backfield, he makes a case for belonging in Baltimore for at least another year.

The remaking of Vinson has taken shape. Six years ago, as a fifth-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers, Vinson was a local hero fresh off a 2,000-yard rushing season as a tailback with Towson State. He was accustomed to touching the ball at least 25 times a game, to carrying a team, to being the man.

Today, after short stints with the Chargers, Atlanta Falcons and most recently, a season on the shelf with a separated shoulder here in 1998, Vinson has settled into a role as one of the guys. He's the one you'll see sprinting downfield on kickoff coverage, step for step in the middle with standout Bennie Thompson. He's the one who is finally getting a chance to show his offensive game as the backup to fullback Charles Evans.

"Rather than being the go-to guy, Tony is part of the puzzle now," Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon said.

The Ravens' new coaching staff wondered last spring how well Vinson would fit. When Brian Billick took over as coach, Vinson had just started lifting heavy weights during the early stages of his rehabilitation. Six months earlier, his shoulder had popped during a special teams drill during the second week of training camp, ending his season long before it had begun.

Initially, that left Vinson with an empty feeling. After his surgery last August, Vinson went through a discouraging, four-month period of inactivity in which he became closely acquainted with his television remote control device.

"A football game would come on TV and I'd get grouchy. I had worked so hard getting ready for last season," Vinson said. "I had to sit back and think about if I really wanted to do this. Do I want to risk getting injured again? How badly do I want to play? What happens after football if I decide to give it up?"

Vinson ultimately decided that too much football remained in his blood. The question was, how would he sell himself to the new coaching staff?

"I was nervous, because they didn't have any film on me [from 1998], and I didn't know what to expect," Vinson said. "But I got very excited, because by being unknown, I knew had a chance to make a great first impression."

The Ravens couldn't help but notice Vinson's off-season work ethic around the team's Owings Mills facility. They approached Vinson with the idea of putting more weight on his 6-foot-1 frame than he had ever carried, to help his blocking skills. With his special teams reputation intact from a solid 1997 season here, they wanted to see more of him in the backfield.

And when the team waived Kenyon Cotton in June, moving Vinson up to No. 2 on the fullback depth chart behind Evans, Vinson's path of opportunity was clear.

By the time he reported to training camp at a bulky 240 pounds, Vinson's recovery was nearing completion. Besides a leg injury that sidelined him briefly, his third Ravens camp has been incident-free.

It also has been a revelation. Did you see him catch those two passes for 16 yards against the Falcons last week? Have you checked out some of the crisp blocks he has thrown in camp?

"The extra weight has definitely affected my speed. I don't feel as quick as I used to be, but it has helped me with my blocks," Vinson said. "The linebackers tell me there's a lot more lead in them."

"The injury set him back a little bit, but he has had an excellent training camp," Billick said. "He's proven to be a tough, physical guy. The key for him is staying healthy. There's no question he belongs at this level."

What has tickled Vinson most about this year's chance is the way the Ravens have involved him in the offense. In 1997, he made the team because of his special teams prowess, but the Ravens used him in one preseason series in the backfield. Then came the injury last summer that knocked him out of any preseason tests.

"I feel like I'm in the mix, and that's a big difference from past years," Vinson said. "I know I'm far from where I need to be, but it's been great to get out there and play [in the backfield] instead of just watching other people play."

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent: Carolina Panthers

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

Ravens camp

When: Ends today

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Today's practice time: 10: 15 to noon

Information: 410-261-FANS Pub Date: 8/26/99

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