Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw knows eyes are focused on him

  • Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw is seen during training camp.
Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw is seen during training… (Mitch Stringer-US PRESSWIRE,…)
August 22, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

Courtney Upshaw is a man under the microscope right now. And he knows it.

The Ravens' top draft choice in April looked heavy and slow in training camp. And tentative, too. In practice the other day, he often came off the snap like a man wading against a swift current.

Thus far, it's safe to say the big outside linebacker from Alabama has not exactly wowed the Ravens.

"I feel I can produce and make plays," he said after the workout. "I've just got to go out there and prove it to them on game day. I can do whatever out here in practice. But if I don't do it in the game, then they can't depend on me."

He gets another chance Thursday when the Ravens play the Jacksonville Jaguars at M&T Bank Stadium, and he's clearly feeling pressure to produce.

He missed the first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons with a shoulder injury and played unevenly in the loss to the Detroit Lions in his first NFL action.

He told me he had a tackle in that game, but it's not listed in the defensive stats. And he drew a critical — if anything's ever critical in preseason — offside penalty that aided a touchdown drive.

All in all, Ravens coaches were underwhelmed.

Asked about Upshaw's performance after the game, John Harbaugh said: "Nothing stood out that I saw. I think he played hard. It's good to get him out there. He needs to play."

It wasn't exactly a glowing endorsement from the coach, who could usually find something sunny to say about a rookie if he tripped over a blocking sled.

On the other hand, Upshaw wasn't beating his chest in triumph after the Lions game, either.

"Last week I got a little taste of it," he said. "But I felt a little slow, like slow motion."

The problem is, when you're a team's top draft choice and counted on so heavily with NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon, and you're coming off a shoulder injury and don't stand out in preseason, coaches tend to get a little ... oh, what's the word? Concerned?

Yes, maybe that's the word.

No one at Under Armour Performance Center — can we just call it UAPC or the Center? — seems to be pushing the panic button on Upshaw.

He's a big, strong kid who excelled in a big-time college program with a pro-style defense. The Ravens paid him a lot of dough ($5.3 million for four years, along with a ton of guaranteed money and a bonus) because they believe in him.

Suggs has even gone on record as saying Upshaw is better prepared and technically more savvy than the Sack Master himself was as a rookie.

But when Harbaugh was asked about Albert McClellan gaining in the battle for the strong-side linebacker spot that was thought to be Upshaw's to lose, the coach made it clear the rookie wasn't being handed the job.

"You've got to earn your stripes," Harbaugh said. "You have to earn your position here no matter what. I don't know why a lot of people would think that. That's pretty presumptuous. The best guys play. The guys who are playing the best are the best."

With two games left in the preseason, Upshaw's not the best just yet. Not even close. Even his teammates will tell you that.

"I think he is really getting comfortable," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You get past the first two weeks and these young guys really start to settle in. Don't let me put too much on him, because he still has a long learning curve to go."

Upshaw knows that. The kid's not dumb. To be fair, he's missed a lot of repetitions in camp with the injury. And it's clear the shoulder still isn't 100 percent, which has affected his explosiveness and frustrated him to no end.

"My shoulder's going to bother me," he said. "But I'm a football player. I'm just going to have to go out there and endure the pain and make it happen."

Maybe he makes it happen Thursday against the Jaguars. The Ravens would love to see that. So would Upshaw, who sounds as though he's had the day circled on his calendar for weeks.

"I'm really amped up about this game," he said. "I know it's a preseason game, but I'm real focused. Like I said, last week was my first taste of NFL football at full speed. I'm just ready to go out there and help with production."

That's music to the Ravens' ears. They sure need him this season.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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