Ofodile finds route after much roaming

Tight end is in line to earn more playing time against Bengals

November 20, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Is A. J. Ofodile good enough to make an impact in the big leagues?

After nearly six years of being in the NFL, after spending time with three different teams, after overcoming a knee injury and paying dues in the World League, and after surviving the final cut with the Ravens in September, Ofodile wants to know.

This much is clear. In a league where outstanding tight ends rarely exist and on a team that has yet to find the right candidate for that spot, Ofodile senses that his time has come.

"Once you're at that doorstep, if you don't get the job done, it's like all the work you've done is for naught," he said. "That just adds to my sense of urgency. I've done a lot of work, and I've had a lot of improvement. The true measurement is in the games. Can you make plays in a game? I'm at that point now, where it's put up or shut up."

Ofodile figures to get more than a few chances against Cincinnati tomorrow. Ravens coach Brian Billick replaced Aaron Pierce with Ofodile in the second quarter of 6-3 loss in Jacksonville on Sunday, and Ofodile played the rest of the way. Billick envisions Ofodile as a regular piece in the rotation tomorrow, and possibly for the remainder of the year.

Billick is as curious as anyone about Ofodile. From his impos- ing size to his fine speed to his much-improved blocking ability, Ofodile has intrigued his coach since training camp. The Ravens could not bring themselves to waive Ofodile when they made final roster cuts.

"There's a lot of people who need tight ends, and I have no doubt that [Ofodile] would have been gobbled up" by another team, Billick said. "We didn't want to take that risk, and I'm glad we didn't.

"A. J. has come a long way. When we started out, the question was: Can he block? We're at the point now where he's blocking very well. The question now is can he do the other things? You know he's big and tall, runs down the field and can do some good things."

At 6 feet 6, 260 pounds, Ofodile has the perfect body for one of the game's most demanding positions, where a player is required to be as much offensive lineman as receiver.

He has shown the Ravens his pass-catching ability in the past. In the 1998 preseason, he led the team with 12 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown. But he had to clear waivers before rejoining the team and spending the year as a special teams contributor who did not catch a pass.

It took Ofodile -- who has three receptions for 22 yards this year -- until 1999 to catch his first live pass in the NFL. He surely has paid his dues, starting with a decision he made to leave the University of Missouri after his junior year.

Ofodile, 26, said he left school early because the coaching staff had been fired after his junior season, leaving Ofodile to wonder if the new, run-oriented offense would be suited for him. So, three years after he had played his first game at Nebraska at 17, Ofodile became a fifth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1994.

And on the second day of training camp, in a non-contact drill, Ofodile suffered a torn medial collateral knee ligament. He spent the rest of that year on the physically unable to perform list. He then landed with Pittsburgh, where he spent 1995 on the practice roster, before the Steelers released him during their 1996 training camp.

That brought Ofodile to Baltimore, where his work has included a stint on the practice squad in 1996 and a season the next spring with the Rhein Fire of the World League -- for which he caught 10 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown while leading the team to the World Bowl against Barcelona.

Going to Missouri was a great decision in Ofodile's eyes. It got him away from the violent streets of Detroit, where he grew up in a middle-class background. His father is a radiologist, his mother a health care administrator.

The bucolic surroundings of Columbia offered a welcome change, once Ofodile got used to the slow pace. In retrospect, he said leaving college early probably was not a good move.

"If you had a homicide there [in Columbia], it was the talk of the town for a year. It was kind of a culture shock for me. I didn't have to worry about where I was driving or what I was wearing. You couldn't make the news just by getting shot in Detroit," Ofodile said.

Leaving early "probably was a bad decision, from a pure football standpoint. At 20 years old, I was nowhere near ready for the NFL, physically. I didn't realize it would take this long to develop."

And Ofodile would love to find out over the next seven weeks whether he is the Ravens' tight end of the future.

NOTES: Billick said wide receiver Justin Armour will not play tomorrow. Armour has not practiced this week after suffering a calf contusion in Jacksonville last week. The Ravens placed offensive linemen Chris Harrison and Sammy Williams, wide receiver Marcus Nash and safety Anthony Poindexter on the inactive list. Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, will receive his Hall of Fame induction ring in Cleveland tomorrow, before the start of the Browns-Panthers game at 1 p.m. Newsome will then fly to Cincinnati in time for the start of the Ravens' 4 p.m. game there.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati

When: Tomorrow, 4: 05 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 5 1/2

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