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Talented rookie class has helped Ravens on Super Bowl run

The question seemed to catch Kelechi Osemele by surprise.

The Ravens' mammoth first-year offensive lineman had just returned from having his photo taken for the network telecast of Sunday's Super Bowl showdown against the San Francisco 49ers.

Back at his locker, Osemele had a microphone thrust in his face and was asked: "What makes this rookie class so special, with a lot of guys playing key roles?"

He thought for a moment and smiled.

"This group is really hungry ... guys who wanted to come in here and make an impact, make a difference and make a name for themselves," he said of a group that also includes kicker Justin Tucker, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and running back Bernard Pierce. "We just kind of all came with the mindset that we were here to stay and we were going to come in here and, if need be, take somebody's job to make it a better football team.

"Guys who came out with that kind of mindset flourished and they stayed — and guys who didn't got cut," he continued. "That's the name of the game."

The Ravens are thrilled with the progress of their rookies, something John Harbaugh noted the day after they beat the New England Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC championship.

"They're kind of veterans now, so we count on them to play like that," the Ravens coach said. "K.O. comes to mind, obviously, and Courtney and right on down the line. Guys have done a great job."

Osemele, the Ravens' second pick in the second round out of Iowa State, started all 16 regular-season games at right tackle. Although he had worked at both guard positions in training camp, Osemele was switched to tackle when veteran Bryant McKinnie came in late to camp and proved to be overweight and out of shape.

McKinnie was perceived to have landed in Harbaugh's doghouse. But when he finally started practicing better and reclaimed his starting left tackle spot for the playoffs, Michael Oher was moved to right tackle and Osemele moved back to left guard.

That move seemed to solidify the offensive line. The Ravens' passing attack has flourished, and quarterback Joe Flacco has been under far less pressure from opposing pass rushers, having been sacked only four times in three playoff games.

"I would describe it as a very smart move," Osemele said. "They just wanted the five best players out there. They felt that I'd make a better pass blocker out there at guard [for] going into the playoffs, where passing is key and being able to put points on the board is very important."

Tucker, signed as a free agent after going undrafted out of Texas, is having a rookie season for the ages. He accounted for 132 points and made 30 of 33 field goal attempts (90.9 percent), the second-best mark in Ravens single-season history. It was also the second-best percentage by a rookie kicker in NFL history.

Touted by Harbaugh as a "natural" in training camp after he beat out veteran Billy Cundiff, Tucker impressed his teammates all season with his nerve and powerful foot.

Two weeks ago, in front of a howling crowd on chewed-up Sports Authority Field in Denver, he kicked his third game-winning field goal, a 47-yarder in double-overtime in the Ravens' thrilling 38-35 divisional-round victory over the Broncos.

"I feel as though we've been forged in the fire this whole season," Tucker said. "I mean, we've faced adverse situations. I've been fortunate that the three misses I've had haven't had any significant bearing on the outcome of the game — or the season for that matter.

"I've learned from my failures," he added. "That's something that's always impressed upon us here, that we're going to face adverse situations, we're going to be in tough games. And it really comes back to doing your job and trusting what you know."

Pierce, the Ravens' third-round pick out of Temple, has proved to be a formidable backup to Ray Rice.

Pierce rushed for 532 yards on 108 carries (4.9 average), and the Ravens like the way his straight-ahead, bruising style of running contrasts with the shifty, more elusive Rice.

"I don't shy away" from contact, said Pierce, who has blossomed for the Ravens down the stretch.

In their 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round, Pierce led the team in rushing with 103 yards on 13 carries, his 43-yard run down the right sideline providing one of the game's highlights.

He left the playoff game in Denver with a knee injury but carried the ball five times for a team-leading 52 yards — and caught a pass for eight yards — the next week in the Ravens' win over the Patriots.

Upshaw, the Alabama star taken by the Ravens' as their first pick in the second round last April, says he can't believe his good fortune to be playing in the Super Bowl just a year after he played in the national championship game with the Crimson Tide.

His NFL career got off to a rough start. He reported to training camp overweight and hurt his right shoulder in the preseason. He started five of the Ravens' first six games at rush linebacker but often seemed tentative and confused about his assignments.

Still, as the season went on and the shoulder healed, Upshaw became more of a force, finishing with 55 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two pass deflections. And, like Osemele, Tucker and Pierce, he marvels at what he and his young teammates have been able to accomplish.

"I feel like this rookie class has been phenomenal," he said. "Whatever opportunity we got, even if it was special teams, we had to go out there and make plays. And that's what we did."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

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