Camp Hardball set to wrap

WESTMINSTER -- Camp Hardball definitely delivered on its advance billing of a grueling regimen punctuated by plenty of blocking, tackling and long hours sweating under the hot sun. In Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh's inaugural training camp, McDaniel College became a proving ground as he sought to instill a hard-nosed, tough personality in his football team.

Hard hits, lots of fights, demanding two-a-day practices and stricter rules, including every player being required to remain at the team hotel overnight, were a stark contrast to the laid-back atmosphere advocated by former coach Brian Billick.

As the Ravens break camp today, the question remains whether they have actually improved significantly from last season when they finished 5-11 and skidded into last place in the AFC North.

"Oh, yes, we're a better football team," Harbaugh said. "How much better is yet to be determined, but we're getting better out there."

The Ravens' players seem to have bought into Harbaugh's difficult routine, adjusting to a new way of doing things as he seeks to jump-start a team that was a division champion two seasons ago.

Although there were a few private complain ts issued here and there by players, several prominent veterans, including star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, have been enthusiastic proponents of how Harbaugh runs the team.

"The new regime this year, it's incredible," quarterback Troy Smith said. "I didn't understand the grind at first. Now, it's clear to me. Coach Harbaugh said at the end of camp, possibly, our legs would be fresh.

"I don't feel anything different than what he said. My legs are fresh, my body feels good, so obviously he was telling the truth."

Despite the attitude adjustment, there are still several pressing question marks about the Ravens as camp closes.

The top issue left to be determined is who will be the starting quarterback as Kyle Boller and Smith continue to compete for the job.

A swaggering former Heisman Trophy winner, Smith is poised to make his first start Saturday night against the Minnesota Vikings after Boller's accurate start in a 16-15 victory over the New England Patriots was marred by a fumble and an interception.

Boller has been far more consistent than Smith during practice sessions, but Smith remains a popular choice to start the season opener within the locker room.

All of the quarterbacks have struggled at times against a dominant defense that has intercepted multiple passes and disrupted timing throughout camp.

Smith will possibly play the entire first half against the Vikings at M&T Bank St adium, according to Harbaugh.

"Like it was before, we've got an idea and a target for reps, but it's more of a feel thing," Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh declined to specify how he would divide playing time to Boller and rookie first-round draft pick Joe Flacco.

"That's going to play out during the game," Harbaugh said. "We're not willing to say right now."

Will a young offensive line be good enough?

The Ravens' offensive line remains a work in progress with starting tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry sidelined since early in camp with sprained ankles. Center Jason Brown is the most experienced starter with 29 career starts.

Outside pressure on blitzes has regularly penetrated the backfield against generally shoddy pass protection.

Injury concerns are another major issue for the Ravens, who are hoping that running back Willis McGahee will be ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals following arthroscopic knee surgery on his left knee.

McGahee was at the team hotel Thursday, but he's getting around on crutches. If he's not ready on time, impressive rookie Ray Rice will start in his place.

The Ravens are privately concerned about safety Ed Reed's status as he deals with a left shoulder injury that includes nerve issues. Reed has expressed doubt about whether he'll be ready by next month.

Reed didn't practice Thursday due to an unrelated, undisclosed health issue.

"Ed had some issue right before practice that came up last night when he was in the training room," Harbaugh said. "I don't have the details on it yet."

Other prominent veterans that have missed a lot of practice time are nose guard Kelly Gregg (arthroscopic left knee surgery), cornerback Chris McAlister (right knee), tight end Todd Heap (right calf) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (sprained right medial collateral ligament).

It's likely that the Ravens will go the entire preseason without having all their starters working together to build cohesiveness.

"If you look around the NFL, it's always the big issue," Harbaugh said. "Are we more concerned about it now? We're not. We try to build our guys up to stay as healthy as they can for as long as possible during a long season."

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs skipped the entire camp as a protest to the franchise tag. He has yet to sign his $8.47 million, one-year tender.

There's speculation that Suggs may report as early as next week, and Harbaugh said there's a chance that he will do so.

"He's making that determination now," Harbaugh said.

The Ravens return to their training complex in Owings Mills today following a light practice that's closed to media and fans.

"I am glad camp's done," Smith said. "Camp is a trying time, year in and year out. I haven' t been a part of any camp where it hasn't been a gut-check where you really look at yourself and say, 'Is this really what I want to do this year.' Camp is an incredible time, but I'm happy to go back to Owings Mills."

The Ravens announced that 85,073 attended this year's camp, down from last year's 90,370. However, this is the first year since 1999 where that number wasn't boosted by holding a scrimmage.

It's the fourth-largest overall attendance since their first camp here in 1996.

"Westminster has been great," Harbaugh said. "I've got the route between the hotel and the practice field down, so I've seen all that scenery. And that's a beautiful part of Westminster."

NOTES: Although Harbaugh insisted that there wouldn't be any hazing, veterans Jason Brown and Chris Chester taped up rookie linemen Oniel Cousins and David Hale in the middle of the field following the afternoon practice. ... Cornerback Frank Walker (right knee), defensive end Trevor Pryce (wrist) and wide receiver Derrick Mason (knee) didn't practice in the afternoon. ... Minority owner Art Modell attended practice for the first time since camp started.

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


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