Ravens' Rice catching on fast

WESTMINSTER -- It was akin to an endless heavyweight boxing match for Ray Rice as the stocky rookie running back ran through and around a gauntlet of star linebackers. For three consecutive days at training camp, the Baltimore Ravens' seemingly-tireless second-round draft pick endured punishing hits and bounced off tackles.

He had his moments, occasionally gliding past Ray Lewis and Bart Scott with his uncanny agility and moves.

"That's right up my alley," Rice said Saturday morning at McDaniel College. "I'm getting that experience, and, hopefully, it puts me in great position to make plays out there.

"It feels natural again. I'm getting used to the speed, and being out there with the best of the best is something I really take pride in. When Ray Lewis tells you, 'Good job,' it really inspires me."

Rice has looked extremely comfortable catching passes out of the backfield, a skill somewhat ignored during his workhorse days at Rutgers that he has been honing ever since minicamps.

Mostly, though, team officials took notice of his toughness and hard-nosed nature. Rice never complained while taking virtually every snap with starter Willis McGahee sidelined due to a knee injury with three other running backs injured, too.

At one point, Rice was the only healthy running back on the team until Allen Patrick recovered from a mild concussion and the team signed free agent Alex Haynes on Saturday.

"I was impressed with the way he came through that," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He learned how to pick up blitzes. He was dog-tired, and he stepped in the A gap and hit linebackers in the face. That's not easy to do.

"Carry the ball when you're really, really fatigued and hold onto the ball and protect the ball when you're fatigued. Catch the ball. Run a nice route. He's done a nice job."

Not that the Ravens are surprised, though. They felt confident that they knew what they were getting when they drafted Rice with the 55th overall pick.

The New Rochelle , N.Y., native is Rutgers ' all-time leading rusher with 4,926 yards and 49 touchdowns. He finished third in the nation last season with 2,012 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns to earn second-team All-American honors.

Although Rice lacks optimum size at 5-foot-8, 205 pounds, he represents a rare combination of speed, and power.

And you can add durability and intelligence to his list of attributes, according to running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery.

"Taking everybody's reps, he's a lot sharper now and understands the plays better," Montgomery said. "The amount of snaps he has taken has kind of put him in a comfort zone. As a running back, that's what you want.

"Now, the game slows down and it's not at such a fast pace whereas before he was in a panic mode. Now, he's out of the straitjacket and we can put him in a wheelchair and push him around a little bit. He sees everything opening up now."

However, Rice's transition isn't completely seamless. There is still much for him to learn.

Rice has a tendency because of his diminutive stature to stand as tall as possible when he's running instead of hunching down and tucking the football into his biceps to protect the football properly. Fumbling has not been an issue yet.

"You want to get your pad level down and get the ball in there tight with your head gear down, so you have something of a triangle," Montgomery said. "Now, Ray is an upright runner. So, we are constantly working on him to drop his pads and lower himself so he can protect the ball.

"When he's running straight up, he's exposing himself and the ball and he's more of a target. Just because he's small in height, if you're an upright runner, that's not a good thing at all."

Another major adjustment for Rice has been learning that he's not going to win every physical confrontation on the field after years of trucking college defenders.

Sometimes, when there's nowhere to run and big, strong defenders are closing in on Rice, discretion can be the better part of valor.

"The hits do feel different, I'm not going to lie," Rice said. "You can't always fight against it. You've got to know when to go down sometimes if you can't get extra yards. That's when you have to be careful."

Rice wasn't employed much as a receiver at Rutgers as he carried the ball a school-record 910 times. He wound up catching 37 career passes for 334 yards and one touchdown.

Through a lot of work after practices on the JUGS machine, Rice's hands have gotten markedly better.

"Ray has improved unbelievably as a receiver," Montgomery said. "You can see a big difference in how he has grown at catching the football from the minicamps to this camp. Ray wasn't a receiver in college and has still got a long way to go, but is really improving well."

From a character standpoint, Rice has drawn excellent reviews.

The oldest son of special-education teacher Janet Rice, Rice grew up in a tough public housing project called "The Hollows" and became a role model to his younger siblings and to special-needs students.

"He's a charismatic type of guy," Montgomery said. "He has a passion and love for his fellow man. He cares about people. He's a kid who's very loving and will give what he has to give.

"He gives those who came before him the respect. Ray is a different kind of guy. He has come full-circle. He has an inner peace about this game."

During Saturday's practice session, Rice darted across the field with his cutback moves.

He has been building a reputation amongst the fans as a crowd-pleaser. Several fans were wearing Rutgers T-shirts and shouting out his name each time his number was called.

The lights are literally about to click on for Rice on Thursday night against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Not only does this mark his first pro football game as a player, it will be the first time he has ever set foot inside an NFL stadium.

"This is really special for me," Rice said. "We're playing against a great team with great players, so this is a dream come true."

Montgomery has been observing his protégé for months, spending countless hours with the former college football star.

He's unconcerned about Rice falling victim to the usual rookie failing of nerves. He's hoping Rice will simply transition his one-man highlight show from the practice field into a higher-profile arena.

"I think when the lights come on and he puts on those Ravens' silks, he's going to know that it's time to play football," Montgomery said. "He's going to see that the game is at a faster pace, one that's faster than what he knows from college and here on the practice field.

"The energy and the juices are flowing, so your game level rises. He's going to see that everything is faster, but he's going to adjust and give it everything he's got." Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Ravens Insider Top Stories