Cousins primed for his shot

WESTMINSTER -- Eight years after putting his soccer ball on the shelf and departing his homeland of Jamaica, Oniel Cousins is getting acclimated with more uncharted personal territory. The Baltimore Ravens' pugilistic third-round draft pick found himself starting at right offensive tackle Sunday morning as he replaced Mike Kracalik.

He wasn't totally surprised, but hadn't exactly been anticipating the promotion.

For Cousins, it's a small vote of confidence as he tries to prove that he's a legitimate blocker and not just a willing fighter whose first instinct seems to be to throw jabs and haymakers at anyone that riles him.

With starting tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry sidelined with sprained ankles, this could be Cousins' shot to separate from the pack of reserve linemen. It's unclear if offensive line coach John Matsko will start Cousins in the Ravens' preseason home opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

"Coach Matsko has this mentality that everybody on the offensive line is a starter," Cousins said. "So, that's how you've got to prepare yourself and be ready to go. They give me a lot of confidence.

"I feel ready. Whenever I'm called upon, I'm going to be ready to go."

While Terry is slated to start on the right side, Cousins, who's hobbled slightly by a minor knee injury, could create a competition if he impresses during this audition.

"I thought he did a good job," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's got a lot to learn, a lot of technique things, posture, assignment , target footwork, but he competes. When a guy competes like that who's got a lot of athletic ability, he's got a chance to be good."

Cousins has a tendency to compete with so much intensity that it gets under his teammates' skin.

Sunday, he exchanged punches with linebacker Antwan Barnes. After the fight was broken up, Barnes kicked him in the rear. Later, linebacker Jarret Johnson knocked Cousins' helmet off with an open-hand shot.

It was Cousins' third full-scale fight since being drafted by the Ravens out of UTEP, following previous brawls with defensive tackle Amon Gordon and linebacker Dan Cody.

"I just like to play physical and I like to finish," Cousins said. "That's why I'm trying to get better, and that's what I'm trying to bring to this offensive line."

Cousins' tough-guy persona reminds team officials of fiery former Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown.

Although much smaller and not as intimidating as Brown, Cousins' intensity spawns flashbacks.

"Fighting is just a part of competing," Cousin s said. "Everybody out there is being physical. It's intensity. At the end of the day, you forget about it because it's just a game. But when the whistle blows..

"I usually tick a lot of people off, and they try to fight me. Hopefully, they lose their focus. That's part of my game plan."

The intricacies of football are a relatively new concept for Cousins.

He didn't begin playing the game until his sophomore year at a private Christian high school in Fullerton, Calif.

He played soccer in Portland, Jamaica before moving to the United States at age 15. The agility and quickness he learned in soccer have translated well to the gridiron.

"It helps me a lot," Cousins said. "You do a lot of running in soccer, and it helps with my footwork and how I run."

As a defensive lineman, offensive lineman and linebacker, he earned Most Valuable Player honors in high school and was recruited to UTEP as a defensive tackle.

He didn't begin playing on the offensive line until he was a redshirt sophomore.

"I came to this country to get an education and play soccer," Cousins said. "Once I started playing football, I fell in love with the sport.

"I like everything about it. When you get mad at yourself or someone else, you can take that aggressiveness out and it's legal. I have a lot of fun with that."

Cousins recalled that his mother, Elaine Stewart, wasn't too keen on him gravitating toward football.

He quickly grew from 170 pounds into his current 6-foot-4, 310-pound frame.

"My mama wasn't happy at first because she didn't want her baby to get hurt," Cousins said. "Once she saw that I was getting bigger, she figured I was eating well and would be safe."

Cousins' family moved a lot before settling in California, including time spent in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Cousins didn't grow up with much, but he learned to appreciate whatever he had.

"My family learned how to survive," he said. "They taught me the value of hard work and what it can do for you.

At UTEP, Cousins specialized in pass-blocking for the Miners after becoming a starter for his final two seasons. He played left tackle as a junior and right tackle as a senior.

"He's a pretty strong, physical player, and you can tell he wants to be good," Johnson said. "I think you just have to give him time and he's going to be a good player."

Last season, Cousins was nam ed All-Conference USA as UTEP averaged 422.9 yards and 33.6 points per contest and set a school record with 5,074 yards of offense.

He graded out at over 90 percent for blocking consistency three times.

"Oniel's an outstanding athlete, and a great prospect," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said when the Ravens drafted Cousins. "He probably needs to get a little stronger, but the tools are there. "He's a worker. He's got the right temperament. He's a nasty player."

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

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