Bigger role not a stretch

6-3 Harper seeks passes outside red zone

June 17, 2008|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN REPORTER

Justin Harper's height has attracted a label he's eager to shed.

The 6-foot-3 rookie wide receiver is being looked at by coaches, fans and analysts as a perfect red-zone target for an offense stuck in neutral without 6-5 tight end Todd Heap, who missed 10 games last season.

That's fine for now, but Harper - who was drafted by the Ravens with the 215th overall pick in the seventh round in April - wants to be known for more.

"I'm trying to start and stretch the whole field," he said. "It's not all about the red zone. We've got to get to the red zone first, and I'm trying to be a part to help us get down to the red zone. But at the same time, when we get down to the red zone and my name is called, I'm ready to make a play."

Harper appears to have made an impression with the coaching staff, which elected to use the 23-year-old from Virginia Tech at the X, or outside receiver, position last month while Demetrius Williams dealt with an Achilles tendon injury.

He returned to the sidelines when Williams returned two weeks ago, but the coaches seem optimistic about Harper's potential.

"We're hopeful that Justin can become a red-zone target and a target all over the field," coach John Harbaugh said. "I'd say he's been better than expected. He's had a good stretch here."

Though young, Harper carries a sense of maturity forged by upheaval.

Growing up without a father, a teenage Harper, his four brothers and two sisters moved in with their grandmother Oddie Bele Harper in North Carolina. Harper and his brothers shared bunk beds in a bedroom. Harper spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy to improve his academic standing before enrolling at Virginia Tech.

And on May 26, 2006, Harper became a father when his girlfriend gave birth to Jaidyn La'net.

Harper said the birth of his daughter gave him a singular focus while playing for the Hokies, and the desire to enhance her life continues today.

"Every time I get up in the morning, the first thing I think about is Jaidyn and having her not having to work a day in her life," he said. "A lot of people say you shouldn't do your kids like that, but I'm setting the bar for her to go to school, get her degree, and have fun. That's my No. 1 goal, to set her up for life. She's a blessing to me. She keeps me going."

While Harper can be as easygoing as the rest of his teammates, he tends to be businesslike in the film room and on the practice field.

"He's come with a purpose every day, and that usually shows a maturity," wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "He has his lapses - as we all do - and we remind him of those and move on. But the good thing about him is he can take criticism. He understands criticism, and he can take hard coaching and hard criticism, and he doesn't let it affect the big picture. A lot of guys that come into this league can't do that."

Harper said he still has a lot to grasp within offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's intricate system.

But he said he enjoyed being "thrown into the fire" during Williams' absence.

"The experience that I'm getting, I feel like that's helping me even more," Harper said. " ... It's on me to get into my playbook more and to help develop myself more as a player. This is my opportunity. I've just got to take advantage of it."

Notes -- Rookie offensive tackle Oniel Cousins walked off the practice field because of a recurrence of migraines about 40 minutes into the first session of rookie minicamp yesterday. "He had migraines again," Harbaugh said after practice. "We've got migraines going around, I guess, on the offensive line. He had to come out because of the migraines." ... Harbaugh said the team might keep having its rookie camp after organized team activities and minicamps. "They're so much further along than if we would've had this camp in the beginning before they had been through the offense twice," Harbaugh said. "For a lot of these guys, it's their third time through the offense, and it showed up today in their ability to operate the offense and run the routes and make the adjustments."edward.lee@baltsun.com

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