Running Down a Dream
Against All Odds, Undrafted Ravens Rookie Tries to Make Team
By Joe Platania
The unpretentious concrete staircase that leads to the McDaniel College practice field is small, but it provides a gateway to what could be a huge future for any rookie that descends it.
Ravens rookie linebacker Jameel McClain, an undrafted free agent from Syracuse, is usually one of the first to walk down those stairs before each morning's training camp practice.
As the relentless sun breaks over the Gill Learning Center gymnasium, McClain, adorned in a white No. 48 jersey, goes into his pre-practice routine. He takes a swig of a sports drink, walks down the stairs and assumes his spot on the practice field.
A trainer soon appears to bend McClain in places where most non-athletes don't have places. The back is stretched, as are the shoulders and the legs. But as camp began, it was a stretch to say McClain would make the team. There were several factors working against him.
Even with Dan Cody's move to defensive end, McClain was one of six outside linebackers on the roster, a position that has already produced past Ravens legends in Peter Boulware, Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs and future promise in Antwan Barnes and Edgar Jones.
Most teams, even those running a 3-4 scheme as Baltimore does, carry an absolute maximum of eight linebackers on the final 53-man roster, which means McClain would have to leapfrog at least five players to have a chance. That's why he has had his hand on the ground in camp, playing more than a few snaps at defensive end as well.
McClain is the only one of 13 linebackers on the roster who was an undrafted free agent. The Ravens have put at least one of those on the roster in seven of the last eight years, but
McClain's competition includes tackle Joe Reitz, who plays a position of dire need, and Piotr Czech, who could be a valuable kickoff specialist.
With all that facing him, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound McClain has descended the stairs each morning and gone about his business the same way every day. A meticulous creature of habit, he knows that establishing a routine of habitual positivity is the key to fighting for -- and winning -- a spot on the roster.
Fighting is something McClain knows a lot about. In reality, the training camp fight in which he has been embroiled has been one of the easiest he has had to face.
OUT OF THE BOX
McClain has had to fight for everything he has.
As a youngster, he and several of his siblings lived with their mother at a Salvation Army facility in Philadelphia, homeless for more than a year.
When he got a little older, McClain was a Golden and Silver Gloves heavyweight boxer who lost just once in his amateur career.
"My whole life has been a fight," the Syracuse graduate said. "So it's no different now, fighting for [a spot on the roster]. If you understand that you're an underdog, there should be no surprises."
It's no shock that while at Syracuse, the tenacious McClain was a semifinalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the nation's best defensive linemen. He registered a career-best 9.5 sacks as a junior, ranking him in the NCAA's top 20.
McClain had good teachers at Syracuse, including coaches with NFL experience such as Greg Robinson and Paul Pasqualoni. They steered him toward the strongside linebacker spot (“SAM”), the one that plays directly opposite the tight end.
While with the Orange, McClain's speed and athleticism developed to the point where he has been able to cover receivers in space out of the slot as well.
But at one point in his life, McClain looked as though he would be ranked by The Ring Magazine rather than by a football scouting service.
"[Getting into boxing] was a stroke of luck," McClain said. "It was what everybody was doing in the neighborhood. It just so happened that a guy I was playing basketball with was one of the top amateur [boxers]. You can't live in Philadelphia and not box."
McClain's ring fortunes were blessed by none other than former world heavyweight champion and fellow Philadelphia native Joe Frazier, who gave him his first pair of boxing trunks. But it was one of McClain's brothers that pushed him in another direction, one that has presented its own set of challenges.
"You have to get out there and show you can play any chance you get," McClain wrote in a rookie blog on the Ravens' Web site. "There are guys that haven't gotten many of these chances, so I feel blessed.
"I'm ready to do whatever it takes to let coaches know ... I'm ready to make plays and contribute."
THE FIRST DAYS
With the veterans not due in camp for another couple of days, McClain went through the usual rookie ups and downs as drills began July 22.
He showed good technique when he got a jam on wideout Patrick Carter coming out of the slot. But later he switched sides with Tavares Gooden and allowed running back Allen Patrick to get to the sideline and catch an open pass.
Later, Carter beat him for a touchdown on a slant.
"It's just about playing the technique right," McClain said. "At a point, I was [on the inside] the right way, but I got lost. But it's about brushing it off and coming back for the next play."
However, McClain's effort wasn't lost on linebackers coach Greg Mattison, who draped his arm around the young rookie and had a detailed chat with him all the way off the field.
"Like all rookies, [he just has to] turn it loose on every play," Mattison said. "That's the thing that raw rookies have to guard against, getting slowed down by their mental processes. But he's definitely not the kind of kid that's intimidated by anything."
Veteran Bart Scott, who has intimidated more than a few ball carriers in his time, has gone through the rookie free agent routine himself, being one of 11 that made the team in a similar rebuilding season six years ago. He has noticed McClain's fight and drive.
“[It's his] work ethic," Scott said. "He’s always willing to learn. He’s getting more coached up than anybody. He comes in here, he puts in the extra time whenever you need to. I think he’ll see a lot of the benefits of working hard and putting it together.”
ANOTHER PAGE TURNED
During the "hard knocks" training camp seven years ago, the team's rookies, who have a separate locker room, celebrated the end of camp by dousing each other with water and sports drinks, as if a championship had been won.
In McClain's hard-knock life, Friday, July 25 -- the day the veterans hit the field for the first time -- marked his 23rd birthday, no small milestone for someone with his background.
"All the rookies sang ['Happy Birthday'] to him in the locker room," said defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams, McClain's roommate.
But McClain had another couple of reasons to celebrate.
As camp progressed, other young players such as Carter and Daniels found themselves on the sidelines with injuries. At one point, over one-quarter of the 80-man roster was banged up at one point.
Not only that, but some of the players McClain had been battling against in individual matchups -- tackle Sean Dumford, most notably -- found themselves packing for home as the Ravens' new coaching staff continued to give itself options at many positions while weeding out the dead wood in the process.
"Every day is an opportunity to compete for everybody," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We're trying to get our communication nailed down. There are some things that we never did quite as well last year that we're trying to fix, and we're trying to teach. Every day we come out with an attitude that we're going to get better, and that's the type of thing that you really look to do."
It would be difficult for a veteran-led team to get better with the kind of rigorous camp schedule new head coach John Harbaugh had laid out for them.
The tentative itinerary had 12 straight days of double practices scheduled, with McClain's birthday being the first of those days (it was later cut to eight with the team given part of last weekend off).
Perhaps with that in mind, McClain was the first defensive player on the field Friday morning as he prepared for a long morning of both punt and kickoff team coverage drills and second- and third-string team work.
On his first two team plays, McClain was assigned to rush the quarterback. Tight end Adam Bergen held him off on the first rush, but he came off the corner untouched on the next play.
GETTING HOT, COOLING OFF
Saturday, July 26, was McClain's best playmaking day of camp so far.
After spending the first part of practice working on pass coverage drops and kick coverage, McClain showed great tenacity in the lineman drills by practically throwing tight end Aaron Walker to the ground.
However, starter Todd Heap then shoved McClain easily out of the way on the next repetition.
McClain rallied by being the first to pick up a Joe Flacco fumbled snap and then providing close coverage on a short pass to Matt Willis. He then got the better of Dumford and forced an interception during team drills.
The hard work, the attention to detail and routine, seemed to be paying off.
"Just keep grinding and just keeping your head down," McClain said. "When you have a good day, the next day could be a bad day. That's what football is, just going day by day."
Every day, McClain has participated in the time-honored tradition of carrying a veteran's shoulder pads and jersey into the Gill locker room after practice. Barnes has been the lucky beneficiary of McClain's dutifulness.
But even tough a rookie sometimes finds himself alone against the sometimes condescending behavior of the veterans, McClain, even with all he's been through, has managed to find the silver lining.
"With this organization and this team, you're really never alone," McClain said. "In the struggle to make yourself stand out, you're by yourself. It's your job to make the plays and make yourself known. But whenever you need someone to talk to, the players on this team are willing to help out."
Even though McClain and Williams had roomed together at an Owings Mills hotel during organized team activities, Williams would like to talk to him about the only issue they don't have in common.
"The only thing is that I like to sleep cold and he doesn't like to sleep cold," said Williams, a rookie from Missouri. "He'll get up in the middle of the night and turn the air conditioner off, then I'll be sweating and have to turn it back on. But he's a funny guy, he's everything that you want a roommate to be. He's cool, and he likes the same stuff I like."
ALWAYS STUDYING AND LEARNING
Watching film and videotape is part and parcel of the football player's experience. That plays right into McClain's hands.
To escape from the tough environment in which he grew up, McClain became an avid movie buff at a young age. Yet, while most players are often seen checking into the team hotel with DVD players and flat-screen televisions to watch their favorite flicks, McClain did no such thing.
That's quite a concession to make during a summer when "The Dark Knight" leads a list of the usual summer blockbusters.
"Any movie that comes out, I'm trying to see it," McClain wrote on the team site. "On my radar right now is 'Tropic Thunder'. I think it comes out [Aug. 11], and I have to see that.
"I don't think I'll be able to catch it when it comes out."
That's because training camp won't end until next Friday, Aug. 15, when McClain and rookies like him will have been taped to the goalposts with shaving cream, water and sports drinks poured all over them.
By then, McClain will have seen action in this week's preseason opener against the New England Patriots as well as in an additional week's worth of training camp practices.
McClain's hybrid defensive end/linebacker versatility, not to mention his special teams contributions, will come in handy as teams try to deal with the modern day, salary cap-oriented realities of having players wear more than one hat.
"There's a debate always raging about those college defensive ends," Harbaugh said. "You like to think physically they can be 3-4 outside linebackers, and so many times it never pans out that way, except for the Ravens. The Ravens have a great history of doing that."
On some snaps during camp, it has sometimes appeared that McClain has slid into the middle linebacker spot, but he insists that's not the case.
"No, some of the packages are different," McClain said. "But it's all 'SAM,' defensive end, and hopefully, I'll get a chance to work at anything else they might want me to."
One thing he doesn't have to work on is watching film; the results of diligent study often show up on the practice field, especially during the second week of camp.
McClain covered receivers well over the middle, especially on crossing routes and got downfield quickly on coverage teams. Sometimes he took the correct lane, sometimes not.
But McClain, who fought through a hip flexor strain as the week ended, recalled his best play rather clearly.
"The receiver faked outside and came back inside," McClain said. "I bit a little bit outside, but recovered fast enough to get back inside and batted the ball down. I thought it was perfectly played."
Obviously, McClain has grown up in a cold world where the heat has always been on. He has fought through life's extremes and found a good balance in the center of the pro football whirlwind.
But will he be allowed to stay there?
"I would like to believe I have a shot, but you never know until the end," McClain said. "That's one thing I know about the NFL."
One thing everyone knows about life: You'll never get a shot unless you walk down the stairs first.
Issue 3.32: August 7, 2008