Asa Jackson had come a long way — much further than his cross-country flight — when he first made the short, but winding drive down 1 Winning Drive in Owings Mills in May.
A year ago, Jackson was preparing for a slate of games stacked with colleges like Central Oklahoma and Southern Utah. His home stadium at Cal Poly could hold just 11,075 fans. And after wearing cotton shirts and shorts at practice, he appreciated the high-tech performance apparel that arrived before the end of his career at the Football Championship Subdivision school.
So naturally Jackson was stunned in May when he first glimpsed the Under Armour Performance Center — the Ravens' $31 million practice facility — then walked inside its marble lobby and down its halls into the immaculate locker room with cherry wood stalls.
"I didn't even know what to say," Jackson said. "I've never been around a place like this."
Jackson is one of six Ravens rookies, who didn't play for a Football Bowl Subdivision school, competing for roster spots in training camp. The learning curve is steeper for small-school prospects, say veterans who took that less-beaten path to the Ravens because NFL competition is much bigger, stronger and faster than what they faced in college and offensive and defensive schemes are more complex.
"It absolutely was [tougher]," said Matt Birk, a Harvard graduate and six-time Pro Bowl center. "You have to understand that your learning curve is going to be a little steeper and there is a little bit of a stereotype, too, coming in. You also have to be cognizant that the coaches are looking to see if you can make that jump quickly because you can't take a year or two or three. You have to start showing improvement right away."
At Cal Poly, Jackson, who excelled as both a boundary cornerback and a return specialist, faced wide receivers who were tall and fast like the ones who are littered throughout depth charts at major college programs, including some that transferred from that level to smaller schools. It was just that Jackson didn't see them week in and week out, like he would in the NFL.
"I'm not scared because I'm from a smaller school," said Jackson, who is listed, perhaps generously, at 5 foot, 10 inches and 190 pounds . "Nah, that's not my style. I'm an aggressive player. I'm a high-energy player. And that's how I'm going to continue to play."
But that wasn't how he played during the team's mandatory minicamp in June. He had missed voluntary organized team activities as he finished up classes at Cal Poly, and he admittedly felt lost at times practicing with veterans. Cornerback Lardarius Webb finally gave him a pep talk.
"I told him to just go out and play ball, and that's what he has been doing," Webb said.
Jackson picked off two passes in one practice last week, but he has looked lost in coverage at times during training camp as one of the toughest tasks for all rookies is getting the plays down.
"One of the biggest adjustments for [small-school] guys is the fact that [the playbooks are] much more voluminous and complex," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They are being introduced to schemes — a volume of football — that they aren't accustomed to. If you played at Alabama or some of those places, the football is a little more similar, but it's still more here."
Jackson, South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson and Delaware center Gino Gradkowski have the benefit of being draft picks, so the talent evaluators whose reputations are tied to those selections likely will give them more time to learn and grow. And to find a success story to draw inspiration from, those rookies can just pop their heads inside their respective huddles.
The Ravens unearthed a pair of small-school gems when they drafted Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco in the first round in 2008 and Webb, a defensive back from Nicholls State, in the third round the following year. Flacco was a high-profile prospect during his final season at Delaware. Webb was more of an under-the-radar prospect.
"I had a chip on my shoulder because I wanted to be the best and [coming from a small school] put an extra chip on my shoulder, so I was running around with two chips on my shoulders," Webb said. "That was my whole thing: Let me show all you guys what you missed out on."
After April's draft, general manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged that the Ravens are focusing more on small schools because the information available to NFL teams has increased. Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said the Ravens take pride in those past successes and see an opportunity to "take advantage of our scouts" and find more impact players outside of major college football.
Nine of last season's Pro Bowlers hailed from non-FBS schools. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and former San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson were among them, as were Ravens cornerback Corey Graham, who made it as a special teams standout for the Chicago Bears, and New Orleans Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who attended Towson.
As Birkexplained, "If you can play, they will find you."
But the Ravens have had their share of misses, too, like cornerback David Pittman, a third-round pick in 2006 from Northwestern State who played just seven games in two seasons with the team. Offensive tackle Ramon Harewood, whom the Ravens selected from Div. II Morehouse in the sixth round in 2010, has been plagued with injuries and is losing his grip on his roster spot.
Jackson hopes to be another success story like Webb or fellow corner Cary Williams, who went to Div. II Washburn. The coaching, training and support staffs in Baltimore are much larger than what was in place at Cal Poly, and he can't believe how many people want to help him succeed.
"It's been a huge jump, but I almost didn't even know how to act at first because I've never had this much help," he said. "So coming here has been a blessing. I love everything about this place and just how attentive everybody is to helping us get the most out of ourselves on the field."
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