The last time Courtney Upshaw played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he showered in confetti after the game, hoisted a crystal ball and was named the Defensive Most Valuable Player of the BCS national championship game.
A penchant for making big plays in the biggest of games at the University of Alabama got him selected by the Ravens in the second round of the NFL draft, though general manager Ozzie Newsome's affinity for his alma mater probably didn't hurt.
Now, just over a year since winning a national title with the Crimson Tide, Upshaw's second in four years in Tuscaloosa, the Ravens rookie linebacker has returned to New Orleans, the site of Sunday night's Super Bowl. His sights set on a new trophy, Upshaw is excited to be back in a familiar place: the national spotlight.
"Roll Tide," he said, grinning, when asked last week about playing for another championship. "Nah, it's a great feeling, man, to have the opportunity — especially as a rookie — to be playing for the Super Bowl. I won those championships in college. Now I'm in the pros, and I'm looking forward to trying to win the Super Bowl."
Upshaw is no longer a starter for the Ravens, but he has played a meaningful role for a defense that has tightened up since allowing 30-plus points in consecutive weeks in early December. He tied for fifth on the Ravens with 60 tackles during the regular season, and his seven tackles for a loss led the team. He forced two fumbles and recovered two others. But he did not contribute much as a pass rusher, recording just 1.5 sacks.
With the emergence of Paul Kruger and the improving health of Terrell Suggs, Upshaw has seen the Ravens reduce his snaps. He played just 14 defensive snaps in the win over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. But the rookie, who has drawn comparisons to Jarret Johnson because of his willingness to set the edge against the run, could be a bigger part of the game plan against the run-heavy San Francisco 49ers.
If that's the case, the 23-year-old doesn't sound like someone who will be overwhelmed by the moment.
"It's another championship, but this is the biggest stage," Upshaw said. "As a kid, we grew up dreaming and hoping that we'd be in the Super Bowl. Not too many people in this league get the chance to get to that first Super Bowl. So for me to be a rookie, it's just unbelievable. I have to execute on that opportunity."
That's what Upshaw did in Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the Superdome in January 2012, as he made six tackles and recorded a sack.
Playing in college football's biggest game gave Upshaw a sense of what to expect Sunday night.
"When I get in that locker room, just minutes before we kick it off, the nerves build up because you are so anxious to get it started," Upshaw said. "Once I get that first hit in on the kickoff team, then I'm ready and the game has started so it's time for me to do what I do."
Coming from one organization with a winning pedigree to another here in Baltimore, Upshaw expected to be in a Super Bowl eventually. But even though he made it there right away, he knows to not take it for granted.
"It's the NFL. You never know how the games go," said Upshaw, who was the team's first pick in April's NFL draft. "I'm just lucky to be a part of the Baltimore Ravens and we're finally here."
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