Heavier weight

Workload - and questions - increase for Ravens' McGahee

July 27, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

Taking a handoff in the first contact practice of training camp, Willis McGahee hit the hole only to get stripped of the ball.

If that wasn't humiliating enough, cornerback Corey Ivy shouted across the field, "Get them here on time, running back coach."

McGahee was one of the last players to arrive to morning practice Friday, again raising questions about the mercurial running back's commitment to the team.

Because McGahee skipped most of the offseason workouts this year and struggled to stay on the field last season, it wouldn't come as a surprise if the Ravens decreased McGahee's workload, especially after drafting Ray Rice in the second round.

Instead, the Ravens are planning to increase it.

"There is no question in my mind that Willis McGahee can be a three-down back," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "I think this is the right time in his career to do it. With his ability, there is no reason why he shouldn't excel on three downs."

McGahee was on the field only for first and second downs last season, when the Ravens used Musa Smith as the third-down back.

As a result, McGahee had only 337 touches, seventh among the NFL's top 10 rushers last season.

There were times when he asked for breathers during a game, which caused some to question whether he was in optimal shape. In his return game to Buffalo, he was given fluids intravenously after a 46-yard touchdown run.

"The goal for me is to stay on the field," McGahee said. "I didn't stay on the field as much last year. [But] that's last year, and this is a whole new year."

This has already been a different year for McGahee.

Last offseason, he lived up to his promise about coming to most of the voluntary workouts. This spring, he went back to his routine that was heavily criticized during his time in Buffalo, attending one voluntary minicamp and the mandatory one.

His absence could have affected his practice Friday, when he fumbled an exchange with quarterback Troy Smith in one drill and then coughed it up again trying to get through the line of scrimmage in another.

Running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said McGahee is "playing catch-up" because he wasn't around this offseason.

"If he wasn't the athlete that we all know he is, it would be frustrating," Montgomery said. "It still is kind of frustrating right now because we're trying to teach him, and it's just not coming as fast as you would like it to. But you know it will come."

McGahee is confident he'll learn the system because that's what he has done his entire career.

He has had a different head coach the past four seasons.

"I get a new playbook every year, so it's something I'm used to," McGahee said. "[But] this is the first offensive coordinator I've had that uses the tailback this much."

If McGahee wants to thrive in this increased role, he'll have to be in excellent shape, which has become a hot topic this offseason.

At a minicamp in late May, first-year Ravens coach John Harbaugh pointed out that McGahee needed to get into "football shape." McGahee said he weighed in at training camp at 236 pounds and wanted to get to 230 pounds by the start of the season.

"He looked good," Harbaugh said. "He got through the practice and was strong throughout the whole practice."

While there have been questions about whether he has the stamina to be an every-down back, there have been no doubts about whether he has the talent to play on third downs.

Cameron and Ravens players have been impressed with McGahee's ability to catch the ball. He made a career-high 43 receptions last season after never catching more than 28 in his previous three seasons.

"He's not a two-down back," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He's the kind of back that you can have him in there to pound the ball for first and second down. But you can split him out on a linebacker and safety and he can still make a play."

When Cameron was the San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator from 2002 to 2006, he consistently used running back LaDainian Tomlinson in the passing game. In Cameron's system, Tomlinson averaged 67.8 receptions.

Cameron foresees a similar impact with McGahee.

"The sky is the limit as to what kind of receiver he can be," Cameron said.

But after fumbling twice Friday, McGahee understands he has to make some strides before he can reach that potential.

"I know I'm rusty," McGahee said. "I know I'm not going to come to training camp and be on point. That's hard, and I've got to work to that level."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Training camp today

@McDaniel College; practices: 8:45 a.m., 2:45 p.m.

A touch behind

Of the top 10 rushers in the NFL last season, the Ravens' Willis McGahee ranked seventh in number of touches:

Player, team Car. Rec. Touches

Tomlinson, S.D. 315 60 375

Portis, Was. 325 47 372

Westbrook, Phi. 278 90 368

James, Ariz. 324 24 348

Parker, Pitt. 321 23 344

Jones, N.Y.J 310 28 338

McGahee, Ravens 294 43 337

Lewis, Clev. 298 30 328

Peterson, Minn. 238 19 257

Taylor, J'ville 223 9 232

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