Inside the Ravens with Aaron Wilson

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

McClain v. Gooden, Ravens' LB's set to battle

OWINGS MILLS -- Far too often for Jameel McClain and his family, the only respite from the cold streets of Philadelphia and the gnawing hunger in their stomachs was a homeless shelter.Having emerged from that grim life experience as a Golden Gloves boxing champion who earned a football scholarship to Syracuse and became the only undrafted rookie free agent to crack the Baltimore Ravens' roster last year, McClain smiles at the thought of conquering his latest challenge.

Trying to win a starting job at inside linebacker next to All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis is McClain's latest goal, and he faces a formidable obstacle.Swift former third-round draft pick Tavares Gooden remains the consensus favorite to win the battle to replace Bart Scott.

"Being the underdog is nothing new to me," McClain said. "I love to compete. If someone wants to count me out, that's fine. It only makes me hungrier.”McClain isn't conceding anything to Gooden, a 6-foot-1, 247-pound former University of Miami speedster nicknamed "Baby Ray."

Although Gooden lined up with the first-string defense and raced around the practice field like a wild man during minicamps, the Ravens aren't drawing any final conclusions yet.They learned last season to not place any limitations on McClain, who set a franchise record by recording two safeties and also blocked a punt and registered 2 1/2 sacks and 17 special-teams tackles.

As impressive as Gooden is physically, McClain is an instinctive, gritty player.However, McClain has the disadvantage of not having played inside linebacker before after primarily playing defensive end in college and operating as a reserve strong side linebacker last season.

"We felt his feet and his athleticism and his body build would be much more suited to be a Mike linebacker," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's picked it up right away. He's done a really good job."

Gooden is regarded as the superior prospect and athlete. However, he is essentially unproven after being placed on injured reserve last season as a rookie to undergo sports hernia and hip flexor surgeries.

"Nothing is ever established until you get into the season," Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "The good news is Jameel is just getting used to playing the 'backer position, which he hasn't played before and he'll get better. Tavares is coming back from not playing last year, but you can see him improving. Both know what they need to improve on."

Gooden is built like a track athlete with lean muscles stacked on top of each other having bulked up a dozen pounds since his rookie season.He's an explosive former Florida prep champion in the discus who also thrived as a long and triple jumper.And Gooden’s behaving like a sprinter who was stuck in the starting blocks for a year before finally hearing the starter's gun.

"I see a stallion," Mattison said. "I see a guy who looks like he's been to the Kentucky Derby that's been tied up for a year and is bigger and stronger. He came out the first day and was like a wild horse."

Gooden has rare range, and drew high marks for his work in pass coverage during training camp last year.Controlling that speed, though, could prove to be a challenge.

"Tavares is sometimes going too fast," Lewis said. "At a jogging pace, he wants to hit somebody like right now. So, I've got to calm him down."Gooden is capable of chasing down ball carriers far away from his territory inside. His lateral pursuit is reminiscent of a young Lewis.

"God gave me a good set of wheels," Gooden told 24x7 this spring. "I'm able to run with receivers, faster than receivers. It's a blessing, man. You can't coach speed.”Gooden's 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds is superior to many NFL wide receivers. It's just a matter of making sure he's running in the right direction.

"I can get the job done and then some," Gooden said. "I can improve on what Bart did. I work hard and I'm going to bring it every single play. I can't wait for the season to start to prove what I'm all about."Gooden, who was Lewis’ roommate at training camp last year, and McClain have made it a special point to seek guidance from Lewis for additional pointers.

"I think the exciting part about those guys is what they learned off the field," Lewis said. "On the field, athleticism, they're gifted in that area. But the way that Jameel and Tavares have already been over to the house just to gain that knowledge, they're searching for it and I'm giving it to them. To see them apply it, it's a great thing to see what those guys are doing."

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