Buoyed by faith, air game, Holmes sights an opening

August 26, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Morning practice had ended an hour ago. The horde of fans was gone. The players were back at the hotel, eating lunch and taking naps.

But there was Priest Holmes, still wearing pads, still lingering on the field, still signing autographs, posing for pictures and talking to fans yesterday at the Ravens' training camp at Western Maryland College.

He spoke to a youth group, posed for pictures with moms and kids, spent extra time with a disabled group in wheelchairs and basically gave everyone whatever they wanted until no one was left.

With his bright smile, peerless work habits and strong conscience and faith, Holmes, 25, is an unbeatable ambassador for the Ravens, exactly the public face the franchise wants to present.

If there's any justice in the world, he'll become a mainstay at halfback, too.

The Ravens' pre-camp interest in Lawrence Phillips was a sign that they don't believe their search for a load-carrying back is over, even though Holmes rushed for 1,008 yards as a second-year pro last season.

But as things have evolved, Holmes and the Ravens' running game has a chance to emerge as one of this season's biggest surprises.

Put it this way: Things are set up for him to succeed and establish himself as more of a "name" back.

He still hasn't done that; a former free agent, he is small for the job at 5 feet 9 and 205 pounds, and he gained almost 40 percent of last season's yards in two games against the Bengals. He still has a lot to prove.

But he is quick and tough, and the environment around him has changed dramatically this year. He and the running game stand to benefit.

Gone is last year's bust at fullback, Roosevelt Potts, replaced by a superb, new blocking back, Charles Evans, who excels at clearing the running lanes.

Also gone is the heart of an offensive line that didn't play up to expectations. This year's group is more mature and accomplished, having played for winners such as the Broncos and Vikings.

Then there's Ravens coach Brian Billick's new, aggressive offense, which emphasizes the passing game instead of the running game, meaning defenses no longer will stack as many as nine players on the line, as they often did a year ago when the Ravens' passing game was so flat and unproductive.

"Wherever I've played in high school and college, I've always performed well when the passing game was successful, because that opens up the running game," Holmes said yesterday.

"I think there's a real chance of that happening [here] this year. I think the running game might open up dramatically."

Not that that means he'll get 25 carries a game; 15 is a more likely figure with the way Billick uses the run to complement the pass.

But if last week's exhibition win over Atlanta was any indication, Holmes will have plenty of room to maneuver in those 15 carries.

"You could really see it against Atlanta," Holmes said. "The running lanes were there. The cutback lanes. Everything you need to have a good running game was there."

Holmes and fellow halfback Errict Rhett totaled 67 yards on 14 carries, for a healthy per-carry average of 4.8 yards.

"I liked what I saw," Billick said of the running game.

Who wouldn't?

"I don't know that we'll be hugely explosive in the running game," Billick continued.

"But if you're not explosive, can you still be competitive? Absolutely. Because I think we're going to be efficient [in the running game]."

It's easy to sense Billick's longing for a more explosive back, but he isn't complaining about Holmes, who has been among the best players in camp.

"Priest has been excellent," Billick said. "He picks up the system. He knows the system. He carries his pads well. He's tough. He's hard-nosed."

Not that Holmes believes his play, good or bad, will decide the fate of the running game. He knows that after last season.

"It's up to the linemen ultimately," he said. "What do they want to do? How aggressive are they going to be? Are they going to attack the linebackers and get to the next level? Are they going to take responsibility to cut off the backside? From there, I can do the rest."

OK, what about the line? Is this year's group better than last year's?

"All I can say is they disbanded our last group," Holmes said.

In other words, he's hoping.

"There's a real opportunity, no doubt," he said. "We have a great fullback, a great blocking tight end [Greg DeLong], a new line, a new scheme and a good passing game.

"I don't think we're going to see many of those defenses stacked to stop the run, like we saw last year. You could see in Atlanta what happened when the defense had to respect the passing game."

You could see a real running game, that's what you could see -- a running game capable of carrying a back to a season of consistent production.

But don't expect Holmes to frame it as his chance to prove himself to a doubting public.

Watching him work with the fans after practice yesterday, as he does almost every day, you realize you're not dealing with a typical, me-first modern athlete.

"I don't think about proving myself to anyone," he said. "I just want to win."

Pub Date: 8/26/99

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