The final practice of the Ravens' three-day rookie minicamp had finally ended, and Courtney Upshaw looked and sounded like a player who had made good use of the time.
When he bent over to place his helmet on the ground, he let out an audible sigh. His No. 91 white Ravens jersey was so soaked that it clung to his 272-pound frame. Tape hung off his wrist, and sweat dropped steadily off his chin.
“It's been a great experience, playing with these guys out here, just having fun,” said Upshaw, the former Alabama outside linebacker who was the Ravens' top pick in last month's draft at No. 35 overall in the second round. “Everybody comes out here working hard, trying to make the team.”
The past three days will represent the easy part of Upshaw's transition from college football's best defense to one of the NFL's most vaunted units.
If there were any thought of easing Upshaw into the pro game and letting him learn for a while by watching more experienced pass rushers, that officially ended with the news that linebacker Terrell Suggs will miss a good part — if not all — of the 2012 season after tearing his Achilles tendon.
The selection of Upshaw, which happened the day before the Ravens learned that Suggs might have suffered a significant injury, was once viewed as more of a luxury than a necessity. But not anymore, not with Upshaw emerging as one of the front runners to replace the franchise's all-time leading sacks leader and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“The coaches told me to come out here this minicamp and learn the defense, get out there and compete,” said Upshaw, who had 17.5 sacks in his four-year Alabama career, including 9.5 his senior season. “There is only one Suggs. You can't replace Suggs. Everybody has to come in as a team. I know the veteran leadership on this team is not going to allow slack on my part or anybody else. Everybody needs to step up.”
That was the same sentiment expressed by Ravens coach John Harbaugh after he was asked if the Ravens were built to withstand the loss of Suggs.
“It's obvious. It's a team. We're a team,” Harbaugh said. “That's why you draft guys and bring guys in. It's never about one guy, ever. I know Terrell said that and all our guys say that. We've done that before. We've handled losses to our biggest stars, now Terrell, Ray [Lewis] and Ed [Reed]. That's all happened in the last two years. It will be up to all of us to do a little bit better, and we intend to improve in anything we do, including our defense.”
Suggs said after surgery last week that he expects to return within four to six months, even though that would be appear to be optimistic. The average timetable for a return from a torn Achilles, at least according to one study, is 11 or 12 months. The Ravens, however, are hopeful that the timetable Suggs relayed is more accurate.
“I'm on board with that,” Harbaugh said. “That's everything that we've heard from the doctors would be consistent with that. Everything Terrell has said about it, from my understanding, has been right on. It's just going to depend on the injury, the healing process and his effort and his work.”
Asked later if the Ravens felt fortunate to have taken Upshaw before Suggs' injury, Harbaugh said, “We'll have guys that can step in, but Courtney is a great answer. But he has to earn that. We've got some other guys that are competing, too. Paul Kruger is going to be a big part of that. Sergio Kindle is going to be a big part of that. Albert McClellan is in the mix there.”
Upshaw's role will obviously depend on how quickly he can navigate the learning curve. Alabama played a pro-style defense which, according to Upshaw, resembles in some ways what the Ravens try to do. But one clear adjustment that he'll have to make, especially if he winds up playing the strong-side linebacker spot that was left vacated with Jarret Johnson's departure via free agency, is learning how to drop back in pass coverage more.
On Sunday, he made a nice play about 10 yards down the field to break up a pass intended for undrafted free-agent wide receiver Dorian Graham. But there were also times where he looked a step behind. Upshaw admitted that he'd like to lose some weight before training camp to improve his mobility in coverage.
“It's definitely more than what I dropped” at Alabama, Upshaw said. “If anything, that's something that I have to get more used to, being a drop linebacker. Everybody knows I can pass rush, and I did that a lot at Alabama, but I am very prepared and capable of doing so, learning the terminology. Once I get everything down, I'll be ready to go.”
Overall though, Upshaw stood out during the three-day minicamp, not just with his physical skills but his ability to adapt and learn.
“He is really sharp, really knows football,” Harbaugh said. “He does all the things that you might not expect a bigger guy to do. He does those things well. He gets into coverage well. He's just a quick learner. He's off to a good start.”
Ravens third-round pick Bernard Pierce, a running back out of Temple, said he heard plenty of hype about Upshaw, but the former Alabama standout still made a big impression.
“He's a big dude,” Pierce said. “I saw a couple of clips of him during practice while we were down there. He's a very powerful guy, and he's actually faster than he looks. He's definitely going to make an impact on this team.”
Upshaw certainly is planning for that to happen, and sooner rather than later. He said that he learned of Suggs' injury on his Twitter account when fans kept writing him to remind him that he was going to have to step up and fill the void. Though appreciated, the messages didn't leave much of an impression because Upshaw already knew that he'd have to raise his game to make the impact that he wants to make.
“I wrote that it's a grown man's game and everybody has to come in and be prepared even if Suggs was healthy. I have to be prepared either way,” Upshaw said. “Honestly, I got the goal and the mindset to come in and compete. That's my No.1 goal. If I am able to get on the field and make plays, that's what I want to do.”