Flacco hits town with high hopes

OWINGS MILLS -- As the Baltimore Ravens assemble today for a mandatory full-team minicamp, coach John Harbaugh is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his incoming freshmen class. No rookie will be under more scrutiny than imposing quarterback Joe Flacco, the first-round centerpiece of a group of 10 draft picks about to experience their first NFL practice.

"It's going to be fun," Harbaugh said. "I know the scouts are looking forward to that, seeing their draft picks come in and the coaches are, too. It's going to be like when the freshmen report for the first time. I can't wait."

While high-profile veterans like middle linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Willis McGahee are expected to be on hand for three days of practice sessions, it's Flacco, a former Delaware star, who's expected to dominate conversation.

"I'm ready to get down there and work really hard to prove to everybody that they made a good decision in picking me," Flacco said. "I was the coaching staff's first pick here at this organization, and I want to prove to everybody that they made a good decision in doing that.

"I have confidence in my abilities. It's not about talking about it. It's about going out there and proving it. So, I'm anxious to do that."

As Flacco begins his first day on the job, here's a Q&A with Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, whose team was led to the Division I-AA national championship game last season by the 6-foot-6, 235-pound New Jersey native:

How do you think Flacco will react to his first practice?

Keeler: "Joe might throw a bad pass, but that won't even affect him. Everything with him is about moving forward. I don't think anything will rattle him. He might take a second and say, 'That's Ray Lewis over there, that's pretty cool.' Then, he'll go back to work."

Do you think he's prepared for potential early playing time, which has traditionally hampered a young quarterback's development? Keeler: "Certain kids would be devastated, but Joe could throw five incompletions in a row and believe that sixth one will be complete. He has a mentality and confidence in himself that he's not going to lose faith even if he doesn't have tremendous success right away.

"The big fear in making such a jump from college to the NFL and being the focal point or the face of a franchise is that you can damage a kid. He has one of those rare personalities that he can overcome any adversity. Any damage that's done, he'll recover from it and move forward."

With such a low-key personality, what's his leadership style like in the huddle?

Keeler: "He isn't a rock star. He has no interest in being a rock star. One of the criticisms of him was that he didn't play with enough emotion, but he's not one of these guys who's going pound on his chest and yell, 'Look at me.' He's very in tune with who he is and very comfortable in his skin. His parents did an amazing job with him.

"He found a very unique leadership style, which became the personality of our team. Joe was a man of few words, but it was like E.F. Hutton speaking, everyone paid attention when Joe spoke. Joe is really funny, too, with a very dry sense of humor. We love this kid and think the world of him."

How would you rate his arm strength?

Keeler: "I asked a number of different scouts who has a better arm in the NFL and they couldn't give me a name. There's so much rotation on the ball that it's an easy ball to catch. He has an amazing arm and can throw it at all different angles."

Several analysts have criticized the Ravens for picking Flacco as early as they did. What's your take?

Keeler: "I think they got a steal. I told scouts they're not going to find any warts on Joe. When people were calling him a third or fourth-round draft pick, I said, 'Put Joe next to the other quarterbacks in the country, and he'll blow by them.' Talent-wise, there's no comparison.

"Big arm, great feet, the fastest three-cone drill at the combine and he won the agility drill at the quarterback challenge. I know a number of teams had him rated as the No. 1 quarterback. I told Cam Cameron and John Harbaugh, 'If this kid was at USC, we'd be debating if he should be the first overall pick.' The bottom line is the kid thinks he's the best quarterback in the country."

How critical was his private workout for the Ravens?

Keeler: "It was a 2 1/2 hour workout with 10 scouts and two players, and he made every possible throw and did everything they asked him to do. Even though he has this amazing talent, he has his head on straight and he has ice water in his veins. I think that's his biggest strength."

What do you think about the fit between Flacco and Baltimore?

Keeler: "I have such respect for John Harbaugh, and this is where we wanted him to go. This was the perfect fit. He's a local kid who doesn't want to be halfway across the world. Cam has one of the best reputations in the coaching profession. He's walking into the ideal situation."

Do you think the trappings of fame and wealth will change Flacco?

Keeler: "That's not going to change who he is. I busted on him one day and asked him, 'Joe, how about dancing after a touchdown pass?' and he said, 'Coach, my family would hammer me. They would say I'm a big dork.'

"He knows he represents the Baltimore Ravens, himself and his family. The kid is such a great role model to be your lead guy. He'll be the ultimate teammate."

NOTE: The Ravens were assigned a $5,045 million rookie pool to sign their draft picks.

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

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