Ravens' Figurs learning on the fly

WESTMINSTER -- In the span of five minutes, wide receiver Yamon Figurs displayed the blazing speed that intrigued the Baltimore Ravens enough to draft him and he demonstrated why the team is advocating a patient approach with him.

The fastest rookie in the NFL rendered cornerback Willie Gaston's presence obsolete Friday morning at McDaniel College, dashing past him as if he were standing still on a fly pattern to corral a deep touchdown pass from quarterback Kyle Boller.

Later, though, Figurs allowed a football to clang off the side of his helmet. He was unaware that he was running the wrong route at the time.

As the Ravens try to identify ways to incorporate Figurs' 4.29 speed into their offense as a potential deep threat while he competes with incumbent return specialist B.J. Sams, the consensus view is that his vast athleticism needs to be tempered with improved consistency and concentration.

"I'm thinking fast," said Figurs, who clocked the best time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February. "You have to slow your mind down and just think. I'm learning every day, watching how the vets do it and doing my thing."

The Ravens drafted Figurs out of Kansas State in the third round with the 74th overall pick fully aware that he would need some seasoning.

In college, Figurs simply ran past defenders, earning All-Big 12 honors as a return specialist who returned three kicks for touchdowns. While he caught 73 career passes for 1,141 yards and six touchdowns with two scores on reverses and a 76-yard punt return in the Texas Bowl against Rutgers to cap his college career, there wasn't a typical benchmark for him.

Against a Texas secondary that featured two first-round draft picks in Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin, Figurs excelled. At times, though his hands were suspect to the point where the Wildcats' quarterbacks stopped throwing to him. So far, Figurs has had the same type of fluctuation in the NFL.

"He's at that point in camp where everything is kind of jumping together, which happens to a young guy," receivers coach Mike Johnson said. "He's starting to come out of it now and be a little more instinctive. He has good hands, he doesn't always use them.

"When he's thinking out there, it kind of slows him down and slows down his progress. I don't know why he had the lapses in college, but he's capable of sustaining it and playing at a high level. You can't teach a guy to run that fast or have good hands. He has all the attributes. My job as a wide receivers coach is to refine them."

Figurs has always been fast. Speed runs in his family.

Growing up in Ft. Pierce, Fla., Figurs wasn't able to beat his father in a race until ninth grade. Eventually, the speedster finished second in the 100-meter dash in the Florida state track and field championships.

"All the boys in my family are pretty fast," Figurs said. "Where I grew up, we raced all the time, played basketball and sandlot football. There were a lot of sports going on around there."

Figurs is running behind Sams in his bid to unseat him on kickoff and punt return duties. He's trying to fend off wide receivers Clarence Moore and Devard Darling, but appears to trail them for the fourth receiver job.

When asked about the challenge Figurs is facing, Ravens coach Brian Billick replied: "Absorbing all that he has to, the subtleties of a receiver. Returning the ball? Show me you won't cough it up and you know where you're running. Those are instincts that he has, and he'll do fine. The subtleties, that's what weighing down on him right now because he's thinking."

If the game eventually slows down for him and Figurs gets his bearings on the field, then he could make an impact.

The primary edge Figurs possesses is a trait that can't be taught: rare acceleration and speed. "It's a way to equalize and have special plays to stretch the defense out and put pressure on the safeties," Figurs said. "All the coaches pointed out to me, 'Just run, do what you do best and use the speed to your advantage.'"

During Monday night's preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles at M&T Bank Stadium, Figurs is slated to make his debut. He's likely to see action in reserve at receiver and relieve Sams at some point.

"It's all about reaction," Figurs said. "The hits come the same way. I feel that's the way to prove yourself: just go out there and compete. I want to show them that I can play solid and do what they brought me in here to do."

Although Figurs has struggled during practice sessions, he didn't repeat those gaffes during a scrimmage last weekend against the Washington Redskins. There weren't any drops like the ones that have typified several camp days in Westminster.

"The encouraging thing was he didn't show that in the scrimmage," Johnson said. "Hopefully this week, will be a good game-like situation for him and he'll handle himself well. It's my job to teach him how to read defenses and how to be better route runner. He's getting there."

Figurs has already endured an expensive touch of rookie hazing, digging into his $579,000 signing bonus to purchase six snazzy Apple iPhones for the veteran receivers. The demanded shopping spree cost him roughly $3,500.

"It's a little thing the receivers have that when a new one comes in he has to buy the team stuff," Figurs said. "It goes on and on, so I'll get something next year."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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