Either way, Oher can play

Rookie's athleticism lets him take left side or right

December 17, 2009|By Edward Lee | edward.lee@baltsun.com

Seated in front of his locker, Michael Oher had nearly devoured a cookie before being interrupted. Rather than finish it, Oher turned to his right, took aim at a trash can about 12 feet away and lofted the cookie into the can with little difficulty.

Complimented on the shot, Oher shrugged his shoulders and said, "It was there."

Oher's nonchalant toss hints at the athleticism the rookie 23-year-old offensive tackle possesses. In high school, the Memphis native averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds a game to earn All-State honors in basketball and placed second in the Tennessee state track and field championships in the discus.

It is the same athleticism that has helped the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Oher carve out a niche as a tackle who can play either the left or the right side of the offensive line.

In the Ravens' 13 games this season, Oher has made 10 starts at right tackle and three at left tackle, the most recent in Sunday's 48-3 thrashing of the Detroit Lions. Oher has also been in the spotlight this year since the release of "The Blind Side," a film about his life.

Oher's performance against the Lions - part of a Ravens display that included a franchise-record 548 total yards (308 rushing and 240 passing), five rushing touchdowns and zero sacks - has convinced former Raven and likely Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden that the team might want to consider moving Oher to left tackle and Jared Gaither to the right side, possibly as early as 2011.

"I can see them switching, because Oher is quicker and they might want to optimize Jared's size and strength," Ogden, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, told The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston. "But for right now, this team is at its best when both are playing well at their current positions."

For his part, Oher said he's not interested in supplanting Gaither.

"I think with Gaither at left tackle, we can play a long time at the tackle spots," Oher said. "I think he's a better tackle. I think with him at left [tackle], he makes the offensive line better and the offense better."

Oher's versatility was a reason the organization used the 23rd overall pick in the April draft on the former Mississippi player. Oher began his college career at guard before moving to left tackle as a sophomore.

"What we saw was a talented individual that had quickness, change of direction, balance and body control," offensive line coach John Matsko said. "When you watched the tapes, you saw the want-to in the way he performed. And he's got feet to play the left side, to change his direction and the ability to recover."

By pairing Oher with Gaither, they figured they had cemented their bookend duo for the near future. But when Gaither missed back-to-back contests against the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings because of a neck injury and Sunday's game against the Lions because of lower-back tightness and a foot problem, Oher slid into Gaither's position and played with barely a hiccup.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, making the transition from right to left tackle has not been simple for Oher.

"You've got to learn it over," he said. "The footwork's different; everything's different. It's just a big difference. It's like when I went to the right. Same thing. The footwork is different, and your muscle memory is different."

With Oher, the Ravens offense is tied for eighth in the NFL in rushing average (127.8 yards per game) and is ninth in scoring (24.5).

But not everything has gone smoothly. According to STATS LLC, Oher leads Ravens offensive linemen in penalties (8) and sacks allowed (6).

Coach John Harbaugh defended Oher, saying: "There are times when it appears that a guy false starts, but these guys are so quick and so athletic that they know what our snap count is. We time our snap count. So you'll see Michael Oher, a lot of times it appears that he's early, but he's not. He's so athletic, he sets so deep. ... When you take that thing frame by frame, he's right with the ball. It's really tough to officiate because of the athleticism of these guys."

Oher acknowledged that there is room to improve.

"I definitely can get a lot better," he said. "I've got a lot of things to work on. It's been a learning season for me. I'm just taking it one game at a time and still working and learning."

It hasn't taken Oher long to make an impression in the league. He has sparred verbally with Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and incurred the wrath of New England Patriots defensive end Ty Warren.

Right guard Marshal Yanda said Oher must be doing something right if opponents are foaming at the mouth.

"He's always getting after guys, and guys are always [angry] at him," Yanda said. "And usually, if a guy is mad at you, that means you're kicking his [butt]."

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