Safety picks his spot

Not invited to combine, sixth-round choice leaps into lineup

Haruki Nakamura

August 01, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN REPORTER

It took only a few training camp practices before a little-known sixth-round draft pick leapfrogged his way into the starting lineup of the Ravens' vaunted defense.

But the discovery of safety Haruki Nakamura was not as rapid.

Tucked away from the national spotlight - he wasn't among the 330 players invited to the NFL scouting combine - Nakamura fell under the Ravens' microscope.

But player personnel assistant Mark Azevedo interviewed Nakamura at the Hula Bowl in January and saw a personable player who carried a Ravens-type work ethic.

Then secondary coach Mark Carrier attended Nakamura's pro day this spring and saw a leader who had teammates latching on to him.

And national scout Joe Hortiz stopped by a University of Cincinnati practice in October and saw exactly what people are witnessing the first two weeks of Ravens training camp.

"He is always around the ball," Hortiz said. "You can't make a living taking guys that don't go to the combine. But the combine will miss some guys. When you dig somebody up that you like ... that's something [the Ravens scouts] take pride in."

Nakamura has been the unearthed gem of this year's camp.

With Ed Reed on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a shoulder injury, Nakamura has filled in at starting free safety more than anyone else (although fellow rookie Tom Zbikowski was starting yesterday).

Nakamura has responded by intercepting all the Ravens' quarterbacks and breaking up a handful of other passes. He is playing like he has something to prove.

"You hold a little grudge inside for those people that say you're a little too small or too slow," said Nakamura, the 206th player taken in this year's draft. "Football is football. If you hustle and work hard, good things happen. I have an opportunity to continue to prove people wrong."

The surprise of camp really shouldn't be a surprise, based on his credentials.

Nakamura was the leading tackler on a Cincinnati team that finished No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll and led the nation in takeaways.

The problem was he looks more like a ballboy than a ballplayer. He doesn't have prototypical size (5 feet 10, 205 pounds) and lacks the straight-line speed for the position.

That's why Nakamura wasn't invited to the combine at Indianapolis' RCA Dome.

Still, the Ravens relied on what their scouts and coaches saw.

At the Hula Bowl, Nakamura was named the Most Valuable Player for the East team when he had eight tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

After the game, the Ravens were one of four teams (Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago were the others) to work out Nakamura.

Nakamura is the fourth noncombine player to be drafted by the Ravens.

"I'm not going to put any expectations on him," Carrier said. "I just want him to keep progressing to where he contributes to this team, and it's our job to figure out where he best fits. He's still a long ways away."

But Nakamura's long road has been a fast track so far.

On the second day of camp, Nakamura dislodged the ball from wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright in the end zone, which led to an interception.

Two days later, Nakamura had two interceptions, jumping routes to pick off Joe Flacco and Kyle Boller.

That's when the coaches pulled Nakamura to the side and informed him that he was replacing veteran Jim Leonhard in the starting lineup. Nakamura was even promoted over Zbikowski, a third-round pick this year.

"I told [the coaches], 'All right,' " Nakamura said. "But inside, I was going 100 miles per hour and going 'Oh shoot.' "

Nakamura, the 11th safety taken in this year's draft, was now playing alongside Pro Bowl players such as Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister and Trevor Pryce.

Carrier said the Ravens will rotate safeties into Reed's spot, but he has been impressed with how Nakamura has fit in.

"He's like a ball of energy," Carrier said. "He brings an excitement wherever he goes. When I got to see him at his pro day, you could see the players around him gravitate to him."

And Nakamura seems to gravitate to the ball.

The first part is knowing where to go. In college, he would watch about 10 hours of film each week.

The next step is reacting immediately. "When you're instinctive and you're aware, that makes up for any speed deficiency," Hortiz said. "It's a case where your eyes can get you there quicker than your feet."

The other part of the equation is desire, the determination that has taken Nakamura from the sixth round to the first team.

"I always want to be involved in the play," Nakamura said. "If you're not involved in all of the plays, you're not meant to play football. It's a hustle game."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

For daily updates from training camp and a new Ravens Insider blog with behind-the-scenes information, go to www.baltimoresun.com/ravens

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.