Big shoes to fill in post J.O. era

OWINGS MILLS -- Jonathan Ogden has left the Baltimore Ravens' locker room, walking into retirement with his future Hall of Fame legacy and his library of science fiction and mystery novels intact after a dozen years of revolutionizing the left tackle position.

With the conclusion of the J.O. era, the departure of the franchise's inaugural draft pick has created a huge hole on the offensive line and a historic opportunity for the young man slated to replace him.

It's Jared Gaither's job to lose as the new primary protector of the quarterback's blind side, and Ogden offered some advice.

"I would tell him, 'Don't try to be me, be Jared,'" Ogden said during his retirement press conference in June. "And, hopefully, Jared will be as good, if not better, one day. And doing the best you can will generally be enough. You don't need that extra pressure."

Gaither, 22, has enough to deal with without the burden of focusing unduly on the inevitable comparisons to an NFL legend named to 11 consecutive Pro Bowls at left tackle after playing guard as a rookie.

Gaither had an excellent role model to observe, and now he'll try to emulate Ogden's advanced blocking skills as he tries to fill his size 16 cleats.

"He's helped me out a great deal," Gaither said. "I think anytime you can be around someone of his caliber, it can help you out a lot as a person and as a player on the field. He did a lot of things for me. He talked to me a lot. Just being next to him and able to ask questions has helped me."

At 6-foot-9, 350 pounds, Gaither has the requisite size and athleticism as a former highly recruited basketball player at Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt. The questions surrounding the former University of Maryland starter are his technique, work ethic and maturity after two inconclusive starts as a rookie last year.

"Jared Gaither has jumped into left tackle," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's young. He's not J.O. by any stretch, but he's had a chance to watch J.O. for a year and he's got some of the same kind of skill set that J.O. has. He's got a long way to go to become a great offensive tackle in this league, but we're really pleased with his progress."

That advancement has included Gaither honing his footwork, converting baby fat into muscle in the weight room and absorbing the intricacies of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's playbook.

The consensus around the Ravens' training complex is that Gaither has come a long way, but there's still a lot more work left to be done before he can be considered a finished product.

"He's without question the most improved guy on offense, in my opinion," Cameron said. "He has a long way to go. It's one of those cases where you go to training camp, and the grind at training camp is where you make the left tackles. You really don't find out about your left tackles until they give up a sack or two.

"Once they do that, you've got to find out how they bounce back. A left tackle has to have a little bit of a short memory. He's got to move on, because we're not going to take him out, and we're not going to move him onto the right side."

While Gaither is the physical prototype and excelled in blocking drills at training camp last year when he stonewalled outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' pass-rushing moves, he wasn't nearly as effective in actual games.

The book on Gaither, though, offers a quick sketch of vast, untapped ability.

Picked in the fifth round of the NFL supplemental draft last summer after being declared academically ineligible to play for the Terrapins, Gaither is striving to improve his work habits and his reputation.

"He has a ton of potential and he just has to keeping getting better and keep working on his maturity," left guard Ben Grubbs said. "The sky is the limit for him and the offensive line as a whole. There's a lot of guys that could be special, but that doesn't mean anything if you don't utilize it. We stay on him and help him out anyway we can."

Left tackle is regarded as one of the most difficult positions to master in football, rivaling the higher challenge of playing quarterback.

So many things can go wrong.

One of the most critical elements is confidence, which Gaither doesn't lack, along with the realization that he has a lot of room for growth as a player.

"This is my season," Gaither said. "I have been looking forward to it since the beginning of last year. I'm going to be me. I'm just going to go out there and go at it every day. Nothing is going to change.

"I have a lot of work to do. I don't have a grasp on anything, I believe. I'm working really hard and learning the plays and nailing them down, but there's always the next step. I'm never satisfied."

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

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