Round 1 for rookie

ON THE RAVENS

Former boxer's versatility could help him earn spot on roster

Tom Zbikowski

June 17, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

As an amateur boxer, safety Tom Zbikowski had more than 70 fights, but none like the one he is about to enter when the Ravens open training camp July 21.

The Ravens return two starting safeties, Ed Reed and Dawan Landry, and they really like Jim Leonhard, a fourth-year free agent added during the offseason.

The Ravens usually keep four on the roster, and if they had to start the season now, sixth-round draft pick Haruki Nakamura would probably beat out Zbikowski for the final spot.

But, because a final decision won't be made for several months, that gives Zbikowski time to prepare.

"You never know about football and where it will take you," said Zbikowski, the Ravens' third-round pick out of Notre Dame. "But I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I just plan on playing as hard as I can and letting the chips fall where they may. You want to be proud of yourself at the end knowing that you gave it your all."

His reputation as a tough guy is what drew the Ravens to him in the April draft. He had 80 tackles last season for the Fighting Irish and finished with 300 at Notre Dame.

Zbikowski not only flourished inside the box or near the line of scrimmage but also as a punt returner. He gained 757 yards on 66 punt returns and returned three for touchdowns at Notre Dame.

If he can't earn a starting role this season, Zbikowski has the ideal background to become a top special teams performer. His versatility, though, is key.

"We're not going to have the luxury for these guys playing just on special teams," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "One of those guys is going to be our No. 3 safety; the other one's going to be No. 4 or No. 5. I put Jim Leonhard in that mix, too."

Zbikowski has been steady, but not spectacular. The Ravens' scheme is different from what he learned at Notre Dame. The coverages are basically the same, but Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan gives his safeties the liberty to check in and out of plays according to the offensive alignment.

He also thinks Zbikowski needs to shed a few pounds. Zbikowski said he weighs 209 pounds. He'll be between 200 and 205 when training camp opens.

"Right now, I would say he is a little stiff, but that will get better once he gets his weight down," Ryan said. "We know he can run a straight line; now we want to see him change direction a little bit more.

"He's a coachable kid and, like all the rookies, it takes time to adjust to the speed of the game. But the kid went to Notre Dame, so you know he can play and has the confidence to play in this league."

Confidence has never been a problem. Maybe it's because he has been successful in two sports.

Zbikowski was a nationally ranked boxer who has competed in the Golden Gloves program since age 9, achieving a 60-13 amateur record. A Silver Gloves national finalist from 1998 to 2000, he was once named Regional Boxer of the Year. He made his professional boxing debut June 10, 2006, at Madison Square Garden in New York, knocking out Robert Bell in 49 seconds during their heavyweight bout.

After that fight, Zbikowski went into semi-retirement.

"I had to give it up because the stakes were getting too high; there were too many good football players," Zbikowski said. "You have to focus. A pro football career can be short-lived, so you focus and try to play as long as you can."

Zbikowski said he might go back to boxing but that it's not high on his agenda. The priority is to make the Ravens' roster and become established. The opening bell sounds when training camp opens.

"In college, you were pretty much told what to do," Zbikowski said. "Here, you have freedom to make checks and make plays. Right now, I'm trying to make plays, but sometimes you start thinking too much.

"I actually thought I was going to go higher in the draft, but I guess they didn't think I made as many plays as I did the year before," Zbikowski said. "I'm not going to complain about it. I just have to go out there and prove myself again."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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