Rookie linebacker right on time

A late bloomer, he's already part of team's plans

Tavares Gooden

July 24, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

It took Tavares Gooden five years to find his best position at the University of Miami. It took him only 22 practices this summer to convince the Ravens he has a place in their future.

"If he's willing to work, study and really digest this defense ... I think this is a guy who at some point will be a difference-maker on our defense," said Eric DeCosta, the team's director of college scouting.

Gooden, 23, was a late bloomer at Miami, but he could turn out to be a third-round steal in the 2008 draft. It's not just his explosive burst, his ability to change direction and his aptitude in pass coverage that excite the Ravens.

It's also his passion, intelligence and pedigree that hint of something special.

How special?

At age 10, he found inspiration after the death of his mother, Sheila Gooden, from a heart ailment. He made a promise to her and then transformed himself from reluctant youth league football player to high school star in Miami.

Last season, after four years of trying to play outside linebacker for the Hurricanes, he was allowed to play middle linebacker. He led the team in tackles and was named the most valuable player on defense.

This summer, he has impressed Ravens coaches with his dedication and ability to learn defenses as a rookie.

"He's very conscientious about knowing where he's supposed to be," linebackers coach Greg Mattison said. "He very seldom makes mental mistakes. He's got a lot of pride. He does not like to have a coach say, 'That's not how we want it.' If you do, he's going to come back the next day to make sure he's got it right."

Gooden might have left the Hurricanes, but he has a lot of "the U" in and around him. Former Hurricanes Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Willis McGahee preceded him into the NFL - and to Baltimore.

Having already drawn on their experience and expertise, Gooden will draw more. He was scheduled to be Lewis' roommate once veterans checked into the team's Westminster training camp last night. At Miami, wearing Lewis' No. 52, Gooden was called "Baby Ray."

"I talked to everyone [here] from Miami," Gooden said. "It's a brotherhood."

Before the 2007 season, Gooden's NFL prospects were less than promising. In 14 starts at both outside linebacker positions, he had underachieved. A torn labrum in his shoulder canceled his 2005 season. He made just 41 tackles in 2006.

As a freshman in 2003, he also was part of Miami's infamous 7th Floor Crew, a group of nine players who recorded a rap song that was, among other things, demeaning to women. The group was castigated for a song, Gooden said, that was never intended to be aired publicly.

"You can't take that back," Gooden said yesterday, looking his interviewer in the eye. "When you're young, you learn from your mistakes. ... I was 17, going on 18, just rapping. I didn't know that thing would blow up and be a big deal. We're perceived differently as athletes, so we have to be role models."

DeCosta said Gooden grew from the experience.

"We spent a lot of time with him in the spring," DeCosta said. "We worked him out, interviewed him at the combine. We think he's a good kid who made a mistake."

Mike Pettine, outside linebackers coach, visited Gooden in Florida before the draft.

"Mike was really impressed with him as a person, his character, as well as his athleticism," Mattison said.

The Ravens' medical team cleared Gooden, 6 feet 1, 235 pounds, as well - he has had a history of shoulder problems and missed the Senior Bowl with a hip injury - and DeCosta targeted him as a third-round pick.

The team's first-day maneuvering gave it the eighth pick of the third round, and it took Gooden.

"We had been trying for a couple years to draft some younger inside linebackers," DeCosta said. "Tavares was a player, quite frankly, who was undervalued by a lot of people in the scouting community."

The Ravens have Gooden behind veteran Bart Scott at inside linebacker. Though they expect him to contribute mostly on special teams this season, he could play in the dime (six defensive backs) package. And if either Lewis or Scott leaves after 2008 - both are in contract years - Gooden would be well positioned to take over.

"In some ways, he reminds me of Bart," DeCosta said. "He's got that same kind of explosion and burst. He's got all the upside in the world physically. ... We think his ceiling is very high."

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