Gaither: 'The cream rises to the top'

In the relaxed beach setting of Cape Cod with waves crashing into sand castles and the smell of fresh lobster in the air, Eric DeCosta remained all business as his family enjoyed a vacation. The Baltimore Ravens' director of college scouting was actively tracking an intriguing blue-chip stock whose descending price was about to fall right in line with the defending AFC North champs' buy ticket.

The message DeCosta had been awaiting eventually crawled across his BlackBerry. The Ravens had cashed in on the NFL's version of a silent auction, landing massive University of Maryland offensive tackle Jared Gaither in the fifth round of the supplemental draft last month.

Following an accelerated evaluation period that coincided with July vacations for the Ravens' scouting department, Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti quickly arranged a pivotal meeting between Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. Shortly thereafter, the Ravens wound up with a 6-foot-9, 350-pound rookie blocker with vast potential whose academic problems had clouded his future.

"I looked at Gaither as a stock that had depreciated so much that it had basically reached bottom, and the only way to go was up," DeCosta said. "This is a guy that athletically is off the charts, has always played at a high level and is young, which is very attractive to us. We looked at him as a penny stock that can only go up.

"He moves like a power forward in basketball with long arms and the size you want for a left tackle. He's got some toughness and he's a little nasty. He's a very good prospect, and I think Jared Gaither down the road could flourish in Baltimore."

Just two weeks into his NFL career, Gaither has dominated pass rushers and conversations to create a significant buzz at McDaniel College.

During the first day of training camp in Westminster, Gaither stonewalled Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Suggs' initial charge was halted immediately, and he has been subsequently frustrated several times by the precocious 21-year-old lineman.

Five days into camp, Gaither ascended to the starting left tackle spot over rookie Marshal Yanda. He's keeping it warm until injured All-Pro Jonathan Ogden as he recovers from a turf toe injury.

In a scrimmage last weekend against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium, Gaither throttled veteran defensive end Andre Carter before roughly depositing him on the ground.

"I'm definitely making a dream come true," Gaither said. "I'm not there yet, but I'm making a nice progression and I'm going to definitely continue to do so. I'm my own toughest critic, and I stay on myself pretty good.

"Yeah, it's been happening fast. When I first got here, I was like, 'Man, I'm here with some of the guys I watched on TV not long ago. Now I'm working with them and trying to learn from them. I just hope to make the best of my opportunity."

What's particularly remarkable about Gaither is the fact that he's only been playing football for five years.

Growing up in Greenbelt in Prince George's County, Gaither didn't play football until his senior year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. He had actually committed to play basketball at South Carolina before quickly falling in love with football.

As a gigantic tight end and defensive tackle, Gaither registered four sacks and an interception with a 56-yard touchdown reception.

"You don't see many people as big as him anywhere," said former Ravens offensive tackle Orlando "Zeus Brown, all 6-7, 380 pounds of him. "This kid is going to be awesome."

Two years after a prep school year at Hargrave Military Academy to meet academic requirements, Gaither emerged as a freshman All-American during his first season in College Park.

However, Gaither experienced major problems as a sophomore. He struggled with his schoolwork, sulked about a move from left tackle to right tackle and served a two-week suspension prior to the season for violating team rules.

By this spring, he had been declared academically ineligible.

Unlike many prospects with checkered pasts, Gaither didn't have significant baggage in terms of character issues with just an underage drinking ticket on his permanent record.

Ultimately, the Ravens determined that Gaither was worth the potential risk.

"Academic problems are a red flag, but every case is different," DeCosta said. "Everything was positive for the most part with Jared, but there are always concerns and things we were aware of. Some guys qualify for a second chance.

"Some guys get arrested. Some guys have academic issues or substance-abuse issues. Some guys are young, naïve and immature. A lot of times those guys grow up. Ozzie believes in two things: Players get better and players grow up."

Added Gaither: "I didn't do well in school, and that was all on my shoulders. I still plan on going back and finishing my education. The misconception is that I didn't care about school and that's not true."

After deciding he didn't want to wait until 2008 to play football again, Gaither opted to enter the supplemental draft.

With only 10 days of training, Gaither covered 40 yards between 5.0 and 5.2 seconds during his campus workout with Ravens national scout Joe Hortiz in attendance.

Geographic proximity played a factor in the Ravens' acquisition of Gaither, according to team officials.

"We were definitely aware of Jared and I had been to many of his games at Maryland," DeCosta said. "It's hard not to see him because he's an imposing guy. We had heard rumblings that he was in academic trouble. The day I went on vacation Jared declared he was leaving school.

"So, I had our video guys ship some DVDs of him to me in Cape Cod and down to Ozzie in Gulf Shores, Ala. The workout was on a Monday and, fortunately, Joe Hortiz was in town. He was very positive and favorable toward the kid. By Tuesday, we had him over to the facility. The draft was on Thursday, and we were very happy we got him."

The Ravens weren't overly concerned about needing to expend a higher draft pick for Gaither because no other NFL team had bothered to bring him in for a private workout or physical.

So, the Ravens wound up signing Gaither to a three-year contract that included an $118,000 signing bonus. They consider it to be a relatively modest investment for a player of his dimensions and upside.

So far, they have been extremely pleased with his progress.

"It's surprising," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Conventional thinking says he would not have done as well as he has to this point. We'll wait until we get the real thing going, but Saturday was a pretty good indicator."

During ACC media day last month, Friedgen praised Gaither's skills, but acknowledged that a questionable work ethic was the reason why Gaither was demoted for two of his final three games with the Terrapins.

"I told [the Ravens] what I felt," Friedgen told reporters. "If he would just get away from some of the people he hangs around with, get his mind right, dedicate himself ... they got a steal. Sometimes he wouldn't work. I think I have to have some credibility there with my players.

"There were some days he didn't feel like practicing. Sometimes, money is a great motivator. His learning curve is tremendous. Now what he's got to do is have the work ethic to do that. I'm pulling for him to do that."

Still, Friedgen endorsed Gaither when he met with Newsome.

"If anybody has any doubts about me, coach Friedgen wouldn't have vouched for me," Gaither said. "I'm thankful he was there for me and we still have a good relationship."

The immediate plan is for Gaither to man the left tackle position until Ogden returns. Gaither is slated to protect quarterback Steve McNair in Monday night's preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, and eventually he could succeed Ogden when the 10-time Pro Bowl selection retires.

There's always the possibility that Gaither could challenge right tackle Adam Terry for his spot, a scenario that hasn't been ruled out by the Ravens even though it appears that Terry is going to hold onto his job.

The Ravens are preaching patience with Gaither despite a glittery launch to his NFL career.

"He's young, and he just showed up in the NFL," Ravens offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "He's mature for a 21-year-old, but whether he can play in the NFL and step up and be a starter in this league remains to be seen."

"Obviously, he's a physical specimen. He's tall, he's put together very well and he's in good shape. He has very long arms, which is important for pass protection. I really like the guy's demeanor. I'm excited to be working with him."

Gaither has primarily excelled in pass protection because of his mobility and long arms. However, he isn't nearly as dominant as a run blocker partially because he stands so tall.

"He needs to learn how to bend his knees," Brown said. "He plays so high. If he would get lower, he would be killing people."

Added Foerster: "He's got the tools, but you know what they say about tools. If you don't know how to use them, then they won't do you any good. I'm really excited about this guy, but he's got a lot of work to do."

Gaither is determined to make his mark in an elite proving ground, and validate his decision to leave school and enter the high-profile world of pro football.

"I don't think I rolled the dice," Gaither said. "I think my path is written in stone, and I'm just going where God wants to take me.

"I'm a hard worker, I'm dedicated, I'm nasty and everybody is going to see that one way or another. The cream is going to rise to the top."

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

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