Ravens' undrafted rookies face uphill climb

OWINGS MILLS – Matt Zielinski became quite accustomed to being overshadowed on his own campus.<br><br> The Baltimore Ravens' brawny rookie defensive tackle graduated from Duke, the prestigious academic institution and home of the Blue Devils' celebrity basketball team. Meanwhile, the Duke football team is a perennial loser virtually ignored by the student body.<br>

Now, Zielinski and his fellow class of obscure, undrafted rookie free agents are attempting to accomplish something much more challenging than gain collegiate notice: earn a roster spot with the AFC North champions.

"I've definitely been an underdog most of my life, especially playing football at Duke with all of the attention the basketball team gets," said Zielinski, an all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection who generated seven sacks last season and bench presses 500 pounds. "Coming out of Duke, I definitely do come in with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because I feel like no matter what I did it went unnoticed in college. I just want to make this team."

A year ago, no undrafted rookies made the Ravens' initial regular-season roster. A few demonstrated enough potential to be signed to the five-man practice squad that was expanded this spring to eight players in a move that will keep many of these rookies around.

Because the Ravens retained all but one starter – receiver Marcus Robinson – beating out veterans and draft picks is even more difficult than usual. Yet, it's not an impossible feat, stresses the coaching staff.

The coaches have indicated positive impressions from Zielinski and a few others, including: cornerback Marcell Allmond, a converted wide receiver who started on defense for USC's co-national champions last year, and running back B.J. Sams, a return specialist from McNeese State (La.). 

Former Western Carolina quarterback Brian Gaither is vying for the Ravens' third quarterback spot against draft pick Josh Harris.

All of the rookies, including the seven draft picks, have their name written in ink on a piece of tape above the lockers that they share. 

"There's somebody out here who doesn't think they have much of a chance who's not only going to make this team, but is probably going to impact our season," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. 

The zenith for undrafted rookies earning roster spots and the accompanying permanent name plate atop their locker stall in Baltimore was two years ago.

Billick referred to this period as the aftermath of the team's "scorched-earth" approach to paring their roster as a consequence of an overburdened salary cap.

Six undrafted rookie free agents made the regular-season roster as the Ravens set a league record with 17 rookies and first-year players, the most since the advent of the 53-man roster. The Ravens had an average age of 25.3 years, finishing the season with 19 first-year players on the active roster.

In 2002, Will Demps emerged as a starting safety after going undrafted out of San Diego State. Massive nose guard Maake Kemoeatu went undrafted out of Utah and became a regular in the defensive line rotation. Linebacker Bart Scott from Southern Illinois was an asset on special teams and as a dime back on third downs. 

And converted Grambling quarterback Randy Hymes made the team as a receiver.

This is a more veteran-laden team, though. That factor creates a higher ceiling for rookies like former University of Maryland offensive tackle Eric Dumas.

"This is like freshman year all over again," said Dumas, who chose the Ravens over the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. "We're starting all over from the bottom. I think everyone has little butterflies in their stomachs. 

"It's nice to be kind of familiar with the area, which makes me feel more comfortable. I think I have a great opportunity to make the team, and I just want to catch the coaches' eye."

Rookie Cols Colas had 19 career sacks and 42 tackles for losses at Virginia Tech. However, the 5-foot-11, 233-pounder played defensive end and is undergoing a transition to outside linebacker.

"I felt like I should have been drafted with my stats and what I did in college," Colas said. "That doesn't mean I can't make the team. Priest Holmes played here and he wasn't drafted. I want to prove myself like he did and make it hard for them to cut me."

Besides Holmes, the Kansas City Chiefs' All-Pro runner, the Ravens have developed future starters who went undrafted such as center Mike Flynn and offensive guard Bennie Anderson.

The 6-2, 302-pound Zielinski collected 75 tackles and 18 tackles for losses last season, finishing with 12 career sacks. 

He had three majors at Duke, economics, sociology and marketing management and plans to go into business with his father if football doesn't work out for him.

"What I've got to do is hang around and prove myself," Zielinski said. "You have to work your way up. Nobody's going to hand you anything in life or on the football field."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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