Holmes set to carry any role assigned

Raven would start, play 3rd-down back

May 18, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

There are no free rides in Priest Holmes' pro football past. With the arrival of rookie running back Jamal Lewis in the Ravens' camp, there is none in his foreseeable future, either.

Holmes, who has earned his opportunities as well as his yards with the Ravens, is back on familiar turf this summer. He is, once again, the other running back in the big picture.

It is true that the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Holmes will enter training camp in two months as the starter. But his grip on that job is tenuous at best. Lewis, a 5-11, 231-pound package of explosive potential and the fifth pick in last month's draft, is the rookie everyone is waiting to see.

After three practices in this week's passing camp, Holmes can see the shape of things to come.

"As I can see from the things we're doing, a lot of my roles are [as a] change of pace," he said yesterday. "It's getting in there to add the ability to score, the ability to break a long run; [playing] downs where it gets real crucial and sometimes you want a little more experience, someone who's been in the fight a little more."

Holmes, 26, has fashioned a career in the NFL by overcoming odds and taking advantage of his few opportunities. Undrafted in 1997 out of Texas, he became a 1,000-yard rusher in 1998.

Supplanted by Errict Rhett in 1999, he came back from a knee injury to start the last four games and produce 412 rushing yards in the last five.

Holmes has played behind Bam Morris, Earnest Byner and Jay Graham in Baltimore, yet he holds club records for single-season rushing (1,008) and career rushing (1,514).

Still, the Ravens were ineffective in the red zone last year, and one of coach Brian Billick's priorities in the off-season was to acquire a running back who could make the red zone offense run more efficiently.

Billick drafted Lewis, but hasn't conceded the starting job - yet.

"If you ask Priest, I doubt he'll relinquish anything to Jamal Lewis," Billick said. "He's going to fight tooth and nail for his playing time. He's a true professional, a class act. There is definitely a role for Priest Holmes right now and that is to be the starting running back.

"If that should change, there still will be other rules - whether it be in the backup position, whether it be as third-down back."

Billick says there will be enough carries for both runners. He noted that Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (264) and New Orleans' Ricky Williams (253) both had around 250 carries as rookies. (The Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James had 369 carries last season.)

"That still leaves a lot of carries for Priest Holmes," Billick said.

Phil Savage, the director of college scouting for the Ravens, is a self-professed fan of Holmes'.

"Priest is not the reason we lost games here," Savage said. "If anything, he's the reason we won some games. Every time he's been given an opportunity in college or the pros, he's taken advantage of it."

Holmes, it turns out, is the ultimate team player. He has been attending the four-day passing camp despite not having a contract; he signed an injury waiver while he contemplates the Ravens' tender offer of nearly $500,000.

What's more, he's offered encouragement and advice to Lewis, the man who ultimately will replace him.

"I think Jamal will be an excellent addition to the team because he can run in the interior of the line very strong," Holmes said. "So many things, we complement each other on, with my ability to go outside, to convert into a receiver from running back."

Holmes faced a somewhat similar situation at Texas, where a torn knee ligament cost him the 1995 season. When he returned in 1996, he played behind Ricky Williams as a short-yardage and goal-line runner. He learned to adapt

"I may not get all the carries I may want, but when I get my carries, I will shine," Holmes said. "So you've got to be careful when you let me in there, because I'm going to do it."

A restricted free agent, Holmes drew some interest from the New England Patriots, where his former agent, Jack Mula, now works in the front office. But Holmes seems resigned to accepting the Ravens' one-year tender with the chance to become an unrestricted free agent.

"I've had individual success," he said. "Now, let's get team success. Let's go to the playoffs. As far as I'm concerned, it'll be a tremendous year. With the team having success, it means I'll have success, and that will give me a boost going into free agency [in 2001]."

NOTE: Bob Eller, the Ravens' director of operations, said ESPN has moved the starting time for its Sunday night telecasts from 8 to 8:35. The Ravens have two Sunday night appearances, at Miami and Jacksonville.

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