Sams building a stranglehold on Ravens' return job

OWINGS MILLS – B.J. Sams demonstrated his mastery of the return game and understatement in his NFL debut.

The undrafted rookie running back from McNeese State emerged as the frontrunner in the competition for the Baltimore Ravens' return specialist job in a 17-6 victory over the Detroit Lions. He dashed 89 yards on his first punt return, although the touchdown was negated by a penalty.

Afterward, the unassuming 23-year-old reluctantly acknowledged his strengthening grip on a spot held for the last two years by Lamont Brightful.

"I think I put a good thought in the coaches' head about keeping me on this team," Sams said. "And I think I got a good opportunity of staying on the team."

Sams played with his left thumb heavily wrapped after breaking it during training camp and undergoing surgery that included the insertion of two metal pins.

He finished with four returns for 40 yards, losing more than 100 yards because of teammates' penalties.

"You see the potential," Ravens special-teams coordinator Gary Zauner said. "He fielded the ball well, he read the blocker and he can make people miss. The kid has talent. We had to see if he could do it with the lights on. He did."

Because Brightful is fumble-prone, he endangered his starting position.

By contrast, Sams has been especially surehanded. He duplicated his practice performances in front of a preseason-record crowd of 69,522 at M&T Bank Stadium.

On another punt return, Sams was surrounded, but eluded pursuit and broke toward the sideline for 15 yards. Later, he again showed an ability to change directions and gained 12 yards.

"He made an impression on me," Ravens coach Brian Billick.

The decision on who will ultimately win the job won't likely be finalized until after the Ravens complete the preseason against the New York Giants on Thursday, but Sams certainly did nothing to dispel the notion that he's in the driver's seat. The Ravens drafted Derek Abney in the seventh round this spring to challenge Brightful, but he injured his shoulder.

Sams' performance confirmed the promise that Zauner identified during a campus workout, and that running backs coach Matt Simon remarked about during the team's rookie minicamp following the draft.

"It's definitely not over," Sams said. "The coaches have to make that decision. I'm pretty confident I couldn't be in a better position."

In Division I-AA's Southland Conference, Sams averaged 11 yards per punt return with three touchdowns and 24.6 yards per kickoff in three seasons. He amassed 4,903 career all-purpose yards with 19 touchdowns.

Sams burned up the phone lines to his hometown of Mandeville, La., when he learned days before kickoff that he was starting.

"I had a lot of family watching, calling me and everything," Sams said. "It was the first time I got out there and I was nervous until I got my hands on the ball. I wanted to show them what I could do.

"There was a time when I didn't have an idea of who would pick me, and I didn't think I would get picked by any team at all. When the Ravens called and said I had an opportunity to return punts, kickoffs and make the team, my eyes got wide."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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