Ravens rookie gains yards, not attention

In shadows, RB Taylor progresses as 2nd option

August 19, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The hole was collapsing, the New York Jets were closing in and Chester Taylor was forced to do his usual routine.

He turned invisible.

Dipping underneath tacklers, the 5-foot-11 Ravens running back was quickly out of sight, escaping through the line of scrimmage for another big gain.

Taylor, the team's sixth-round pick, led the Ravens with 42 yards rushing in his NFL preseason debut Thursday, yet the crowd left buzzing about the return of running back Jamal Lewis. Going unnoticed, though, has become Taylor's trademark.

As a senior in high school, he was named to two Detroit newspapers' "dream teams," but didn't get a glance from any Michigan recruiters while attending a Wolverines football camp. And he ended his college career at Toledo as the nation's seventh-leading rusher and the North MVP of the Hula Bowl, but had to watch 16 running backs get drafted ahead of him.

"To some people, he was a mystery," Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon said. "He was probably under-evaluated because there was a good running backs group. Some people have a little more flash, so their 40 times were faster. I thought it was a year where a guy like him could slip. It was fortunate for us, because I really thought he would be a good fit."

Taylor will be counted on to be the most valuable offensive rookie, especially in the first half of the season. Though the Ravens were overwhelmed by Lewis' first game since reconstructive knee surgery, they probably won't be able to depend on him to take 25 to 30 carries a game until November. That means Taylor needs to pick up the slack.

"When my name is called, I have to be ready," Taylor said. "I have to keep my mind right."

Case in point: Friday's preseason game in Philadelphia, where the team won't risk playing Lewis on the dangerous Veterans Stadium turf and will give Taylor his first NFL start. But replacing Taylor for Lewis is a risky proposition for the regular season.

If the worst-case scenario occurs and Lewis goes down for an extended period, could Taylor handle the starting load?

"In my heart of hearts, I want to say it. But I'm not ready to say it," Simon said. "Chester still has to answer the bell. He has to develop some consistency. It's a long, long race, so I'm not ready to go there yet. But I think we've got to be excited about the start."

Taylor is in total agreement.

"I want to prove to myself first that I belong here," said Taylor, the 207th player drafted. "Then everything else will fall into place."

The Ravens will attack defenses by running the ball between the tackles. That philosophy won't change whether it's Lewis or Taylor.

However, their methods of producing in tight places are different. Lewis bowls over tacklers, but Taylor relies more on his elusiveness to dart around them with surprising power.

"You need a change-up gear," Simon said. "The bottom line is: If a guy comes in and plays, we don't want him to only be an outside runner. We have a lot of offense designed for Jamal, and the next guy in has to fit to that, too. We can't reinvent the offense because we changed backs."

Taylor, 213 pounds, has puzzled defenses because he doesn't have ideal size or speed.

Still, few can argue about the production of Toledo's "Rocket Man." In four seasons, he rushed for 4,721 yards and 55 touchdowns and also caught 61 passes for 554 yards and five touchdowns.

His lack of size, though, has been used to his advantage.

"He's hard to see for those defensive guys," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He has the ability to duck underneath them. I'm not sure if they get a real good sight on him."

Entering the NFL draft, the Ravens had their sights on picking a young running back to develop under Lewis.

Their first choice was Boston College's William Green, but he was taken in the middle of the first round by Cleveland. The team then waited until the second-to-last round to grab a back.

Although Taylor was a low-round pick, the expectations are high. That's why the Ravens cannot afford for Taylor to disappear from this offense.

"I'm just not looking for a backup," Simon said. "I want a guy that has the ability to be a player, that can contribute and compete and help this organization get back to the Super Bowl.

"His efficiency is going to be critical to our football team."

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent: Philadelphia Eagles

Site:Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia

When:Friday, 8 p.m.

TV/Radio:Chs. 45, 5/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

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