Change pays off for Folau

Ravens: Spencer Folau wasn't thrilled to switch from the defensive line to the offensive line two years into his college career, but the move paved the way for a career in the NFL.

November 24, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Spencer Folau remembered that sinking feeling upon learning the news. After spending two collegiate seasons at Idaho as an effective force on the defensive line, Folau's job description had just undergone a drastic change.

He would be switched to the offensive line, an area he had barely tested even as a high school player.

"It blew me away. I didn't expect it. I was pretty productive on the defensive line," Folau recalled. "We probably needed some help on the [offensive] line, and I think my coach saw a future for me on the offensive line. But I still had to take it in. I was in a daze for a while."

Not only did Folau survive the change, but he also thrived at his new spot in the trenches. And the adjustment ultimately led him to the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Ravens in 1996.

Folau, 26, has never left.

"Every day, I used to think this is crazy. It was amazing just being out there [on the practice field]," said Folau, who spent the last half of 1996 on the practice roster. "It took a couple of years for that feeling to go away."

Folau is no longer the wide-eyed rookie who could not believe he was in the same practice huddle with Vinny Testaverde. He is a much-improved offensive tackle who, once he overcomes a right knee sprain that has nagged him for six weeks, could start on the right side for the rest of the 1999 season.

With right tackle Harry Swayne out for the year with a broken right foot, Folau likely would take his place if Everett Lindsay shifts back to left guard. Lindsay moved to right tackle two weeks ago. He struggled badly against Cincinnati on Sunday.

Coach Brian Billick said Folau has nearly attained a clean bill of health. He likes the idea of starting Folau, who began the year as the Ravens' No. 1 backup tackle.

"Spencer is coming along, but right now, physically [Folau] is not strong enough for us to consider that option. When he is, that is definitely an option we have to look at," Billick said. "Since the first day of training camp, he has shown that he is a viable offensive lineman in this league. We're lucky to have him."

Said left tackle Jonathan Ogden: "Spencer has learned a lot these last couple of years. He's gone from a guy who had to work really hard to make the team to a guy who is our best [tackle] off the bench. He can play any position on the line. He's valuable to us."

Ogden added that Folau, 6 feet 5, 300 pounds, has grown remarkably confident in his ability.

"He has always had good technique," Ogden said. "His footwork and his hands are a little better now, but he's not apprehensive anymore about going out there. It's no longer, `Can I block this guy?' Now it's more like, `I'm not going to get beat by this guy.' "

Folau agreed. He knows he belongs in the NFL, and he has paid his dues.

He groaned while recalling 1997, the most grueling year of his career. The Ravens shipped Folau overseas to play for the Rhein Fire of the World League, where many unproven players go to get tested.

For 11 weeks that spring, Folau started at left tackle. The Fire allowed only one sack as a line, eventually advancing to the World Bowl, which it lost to Barcelona. After that, Folau put his feet up for a two-week vacation, joined the Ravens for training camp, then a full regular season. Folau played sparingly in 10 games that year, mostly on special teams. By midseason, fatigue had sacked Folau.

"Not having game experience, [the World League] really helped. But that was a very long year, both physically and mentally," he said. "I was just in a zone. I had to fight through pain some days. That's when I realized this is a job. I was always tired. I nodded off in a few meetings. Coach [Kirk Ferentz] understood."

Last season was a breakthrough year for Folau, who is a native of Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific. There, his mother was working as a nurse in the Peace Corps when she met his father, who now runs a landscaping business in Redwood City, Calif.

By 1998, two years of weight training had turned Folau into a bona fide NFL specimen. Two years of training camps, preseasons and countless practice repetitions had prepared him for the opportunity that fell his way last December, when the Ravens were hit by a rash of injuries along the offensive line.

Folau started the final three games at right tackle, replacing the injured Orlando Brown. Folau did not allow a sack in two games, and he was part of the reason Priest Holmes became the first Raven to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Folau recalled the last carry by Holmes, who ran for 132 yards in the season finale against Detroit and used a block by Folau to clear 1,000.

"I pulled right and hit one of the linebackers, and Priest got about 10 yards," Folau said. "It was awesome to be a part of that.

"My confidence went way up after starting those three games. You have to be consistent. You have to do it every time, every play. You have to believe you can play at this level."

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