Ravens have big plans for McGahee

WESTMINSTER -- Willis McGahee burst into the hole with his legs churning and his cleats kicking up grass behind him, fully anticipating a trademark run up the middle for big yardage. Only the Baltimore Ravens' star running back was immediately separated from the football with the fumble recovered by middle linebacker Ray Lewis

And his first handoff of training camp from quarterback Troy Smith spilled out of his hands in yet another miscue.

A Pro Bowl alternate for the AFC squad last season, he also appeared to be confused about the playbook and frequently consulted teammates for advice.

This inauspicious debut Friday followed the enigmatic runner being one of the last players to arrive for the first full-squad practice, and it came on the heels of an offseason where McGahee practically became a missing person at the Ravens' training complex.

He attended a mandatory minicamp an d one voluntary camp, skipping the rest of the workouts while his teammates generally had high attendance for new coach John Harbaugh.

McGahee acknowledged that he needs to get in better shape and shed some rust.

"It could get better," said McGahee, who fumbled just four times last year. "That's what training camp is for. Anybody can run around out there without pads on, but when you put those 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. That's hard, and I've got to work to that level."

Although fans are clamoring for impressive rookie running back Ray Rice after the team drafted the former Rutgers star in the second round, the team isn't looking to take playing time away from McGahee.

Basically, they just want him to familiarize himself with the playbook and get in top condition so he can stay on the field for every down after giving way to Musa Smith on third downs last season.

However, McGahee's low attendance at workouts and practices has placed him a step behind the rest of the class.

"He's got to learn what we're doing," running back s coach Wilbert Montgomery said. "The offseason program that we implemented here, they can't make it mandatory that you be here, but you need to be here to learn what's going on. Willis wasn't here, so he's playing catch-up. We're trying to learn the system first in order for him to be the natural guy that he is.

"Right now, he's going to struggle a little bit until he gets comfortable with it, until he understands what we're asking him to do. If he wasn't the athlete that we all know he is, it would be frustrating. It still is kind of frustrating because we're trying to teach him and it's just not coming as fast as you would like it to, but you know it will come."

The issue of whether McGahee is totally committed to being in outstanding shape has been raised a few times since he signed a $40 million contract with Baltimore after being acquired last year in a trade from the Buffalo Bills.

Although McGahee finished fourth in the AFC in rushing last season with 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns during his first season in Baltimore, he occasionally asked out of games whenever he got tired. Following a 46-yard touchdown run against the Bills, McGahee required intravenous fluids to boost his energy.

"The goal for me is to stay on the field, I didn't stay on the field as much last year," McGahee said. "I was coming out on third downs, but that's last year. This is a whole new year, and my go al is to finish the long runs and get touchdowns."

During a May minicamp, Harbaugh noted that McGahee needed to get into "football shape."

However, McGahee reported at 236 pounds, which is four pounds higher than his playing weight last season. He hopes to get down to 230 pounds by the end of next month.

According to Harbaugh, McGahee is in shape.

"What kind of shape are you talking about? Cardiovascular football shape?" Harbaugh said. "He looked good. He got through the practice and was strong throughout the whole practice."

McGahee is on his fourth different head coach over the past four seasons.

Although he caught a career-high 43 passes last season, the belief around the Ravens is that McGahee still has untapped potential.

"I get a new playbook every year, so it's something I'm used to," McGahee said. "This is the first offensive coordinator I've had that uses the tailback this much."

Following a controversial stint in Buffalo, McGahee is aware that he is often viewed as a polarizing figure.

"That's life," he said. "If I'm not out on the field tomorrow, then something's wrong with me: 'McGahee is out of shape.' Everybody has their own opinion."

New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is known for featuring the running back, especially San Diego All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson during Cameron's time as the Chargers' offensive coordinator for four seasons. Under Cameron's direction, Tomlinson caught 100 passes in 2003 with 79 receptions in 2002.

Cameron has made it clear that he wants McGahee to be the centerpiece of his offense. Especially since the Ravens are unsettled at quarterback with Troy Smith, Kyle Boller and rookie Joe Flacco still vying for the job.

"I'm excited about him," Cameron said in May. "He's big and physical. I think he's just scratching the surface of what he can be."

When asked if McGahee understands what the coaches are demanding of him, Montgomery replied: "Not yet, not yet. He's a veteran guy, so the idea is you have to keep telling it to him and hoping he will buy into it. Once he buys into and he sees before training camp ends, hopefully, he'll be where we want him to be."

McGahee enters this season with designs on his fifth 1,000-yard season after rushing for 1,247 yards in 2005 and 1,128 yards in 2004 after missing his entire rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

While McGahee has the skills, it remains a question mark whether he has the requisite stamina.

"Willis is a good fit, and he's got to realize that in this scheme that running backs are like thoroughbreds, they're like horses," Montgomery said. "They've got to be on the field all the time. You have to be in great shape in this offense.

"That's what we're really asking of Willis is to be very, very tough. When he's on the

field, he can be the driver in this offense." Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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