Catching On

Harper's New Approach, With Help From Clayton, Provides Hope At Receiver

August 11, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

In the Ravens' first two weeks of training camp, no player showed flashes more often than Justin Harper, the second-year wide receiver who almost routinely got behind the secondary to make long catches.

But will Harper flash or fade when he takes the next step in Thursday's preseason opener against the Washington Redskins?

That's one of the intriguing questions the Ravens are seeking to answer in August: whether Harper, a seventh-round draft pick who spent the season on injured reserve a year ago, can become a dependable and productive receiver.

He says he's ready to make the transition. The Ravens, in need of depth at the position, can only hope.

"Harper will be a player," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron promised. "I can't tell you when. Some days are better than others. He can do what we need, but he hasn't proven he can do it consistently."

At 6 feet 3 and a cut 215 pounds, Harper is a coach's dream. He is fast enough to stretch the field, big enough to win jump balls. This summer, he also has the mental approach to go with his physical gifts.

That's what he lacked a year ago, when he flashed, then faded. The difference this year, Harper said, is what he learned from veteran wide-out Mark Clayton.

"Mark kind of took me under his wing, took me on a different walk, a spiritual walk, and it helped me more mentally than anything," Harper said. "I understand that I am a football player, and I have to understand that is the easy part. It's the mental part that comes along with being an NFL player that I needed, and he really helped me with that."

Ironically, it was Clayton's hamstring tear nine days ago that opened the door for Harper, 24, and other young receivers like Marcus Smith and Ernie Wheelwright. Clayton's absence gave Harper more chances to impress with the first unit.

Depending on the availability of Demetrius Williams, Harper could start Thursday as the No. 2 or 3 receiver. Clearly, the Ravens expect to see more of the play-making ability he has shown early in camp.

"We've always seen flashes from Justin," said Eric DeCosta, director of player personnel. "Now we're looking to see the flashes become more the norm. That's his challenge. He knows that, he understands that. If he's able to become a consistent player for us, he becomes a guy who can help us."

Receivers coach Jim Hostler said the biggest difference in Harper this summer is his mind-set. That has shown up in the number of plays Harper has made down the field already.

"He understands the fundamentals better, and that allows him to go play fast," Hostler said. "When you're thinking a lot, you play slow, and that was a huge problem last year. He was tippy-toeing around. He's much further ahead in that respect. He's really a good athlete, a big-bodied kid, so when he plays fast, he shows up."

Hostler said Harper will have to earn his way on special teams at first, and work his way into the wide-out rotation. If he is able to do that, he should compete for the third wide receiver spot, and his size will be a bonus in the red zone.

Harper came on late in his career at Virginia Tech. One of four senior receivers, he had 41 catches for 635 yards and five touchdowns his final season. But DeCosta and the Ravens noted his ability and took a flyer on him with the 215th pick in the draft.

"I think he's got unique size for that position," DeCosta said. "He made some nice acrobatic plays in his career at Tech, and he became a legitimate playmaker for those guys."

Harper's confidence has grown in relation to his friendship with Clayton. He sought out Clayton to guide him through the offseason in more than just football. They worked out and shared scripture together almost daily. Even with Clayton sidelined by injury, he remains a source of help for Harper.

"I sit right beside him in film session, and every day he gives me something," Harper said. "Even though he's not out here physically, he's teaching me a lot on how to watch film."

In Sunday's practice, Harper got a lecture from coach John Harbaugh for making a one-handed stab at a high pass instead of going up strong with both hands. Unlike last year, Harper said he is able to move on quickly if he messes up a play or a pass.

"It's all about going on to the next play, putting a bad play behind you," he said.

Now it's about going into Thursday's game and making another bold statement, not just for Harper, but for other receivers, too.

"All these guys have an opportunity, starting with this game, to really show us what they can do," DeCosta said. "I think the games for all these guys are going to be huge. Marcus and Justin are basically at a crossroads together, trying to fight. And not everybody's probably going to survive."

TODAY

Practices at 8:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. (special teams)

PRESEASON OPENER

Redskins@Ravens, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4; MASN2; Comcast SportsNet

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