Intensity rises as camp gears up

WESTMINSTER --The shoulder pads and helmets were popping as heavy collisions created lots of decibels. Fists flew at least three times in separate skirmishes as tempers boiled over in the scalding heat. And there were a few obvious signs of rust and miscues contrasted by the sharp performance of several athletes who arrived at McDaniel College ready to play football.

Despite the grueling conditions, the Ravens seemed to have two productive practices as the veterans and rookies worked in front of an estimated 6,625 fans in Westminster for the team's second-largest non-scrimmage crowd ever.

"I'd be a fool to say I didn't like it, you can't help but like it," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "That's what makes the game fun is when you can go out there and set a tempo and have fun with it. No one is crying or whining about it being too hot or the tempo being too fast. Everybody is engaged in practice.

"Everybody is running to the ball. Everybody is excited to be out here, and that's what you want in a football team. That's what makes a championship football team, all 80 guys coming out because they love the game. We're having a lot of fun, and I don't see it stopping."

Under the tougher regimen instituted by first-year coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens had a full-padded practice with a decent amount of blocking and tackling.

Running back Willis McGahee absorbed one of the hardest blows on a shot from middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

"It was a good start, a lot of effort, a lot of enthusiasm," Harbaugh said. "It's good to see the guys with pads on. Anytime you put the pads on, it's real football, so to speak.

"We had a live period, guys were getting after it inside, finishing blocks and all that kind of stuff. So, it's more like football."

The practice began with quarterback Troy Smith taking the first snaps under center. Except for fumbling issues that also dogged former starter Kyle Boller, Smith had a solid day highlighted by a terrific open-field scramble.

Boller, who generally threw well but struggled with ball security in the shotgun and in the center exchange, took over the first offense in the afternoon session.

Rookie first-round draft pick Joe Flacco had his moments in the three-man quarterback derby, but also held the ball too long at times and threw a few interceptions. His first turnover was in traffic, a forced throw that was picked off by cornerback Derrick Martin.

"They did a great job, that's my impression," Mason said of the quarterbacks. "Live bullets, fake bullets, if you're a quarterback, you're a quarterback. And the three we have are quarterbacks.

"These guys have p roven that they can put the ball there, they've proven that they can read defenses and they've proven that they can run offenses. So, it doesn't matter to me which one of them plays because I think we've got three very good ones."

Rookie running back Ray Rice consistently broke off long runs and made defenders' knees buckle with his sharp cuts. And rookie safety Haruki Nakamura impressed with his ability to read the quarterbacks' eyes for a pair of interceptions.

McGahee, who seemed to be somewhat confused about the playbook after missing several voluntary offseason minicamps where offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system was installed, acknowledged he could be in better shape. He had some rough moments, fumbling twice.

"That's what training camp is for," said McGahee, adding that he reported at 236 pounds. "Anybody can run around out there without pads on, but when you put the pads on it's a totally different story. I had a fumbled exchange with the quarterback, and I had a fumble.

"I know I'm rusty. I know I'm not going to come to training camp and be on point. I didn't do my job as far as performing well."

In Harbaugh's opinion, McGahee reported in shape.

"Yeah, he looked good," Harbaugh said. "He got through the practice and was strong throughout the whole practice." New starting offensive tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry, who's recovering from offseason ankle surgery, had issues with speed rushers.

The Ravens were missing several players, including cornerbacks Chris McAlister (knee), Fabian Washington (hamstring), David Pittman (foot) and Samari Rolle (death in the family), safety Ed Reed and fullback Le'Ron McClain for undisclosed reasons and wide receiver Demetrius Williams (leg). Plus, unsigned franchise player Terrell Suggs is skipping camp.

Despite the absences and mistakes, the team seemed energized and eager to put a disastrous, injury-marred 5-11 campaign, which included a franchise-record nine-game losing streak, behind them.

"You can't go off what you did last year, whether you were an 11-5 team or a 5-11 team," Mason said. "This league changes so fast. We're not going to be the same team. I guarantee we're going to win more games."

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


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