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Neujahr bidding to fill middle Circumstances give center big chance with Ravens

He is the pride of Surprise, his tiny Nebraska hometown. And Ravens center Quentin Neujahr is hoping the fans of Baltimore will get to know him better in the coming weeks.

To this point in his three-year pro career, Neujahr has existed among the nearly anonymous NFL backups. But a set of unusual circumstances -- the loss of Steve Everitt to free agency and a ruptured Achilles' tendon by Wally Williams, Everitt's replacement -- has forced the Ravens to turn to Neujahr as a possible starter.

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Williams is not expected to return until October at the earliest. The Ravens will probably try to sign 17-year veteran Ray Donaldson to fill his position. In the meantime, they will take a closer look at Neujahr, who practiced with the first offensive line yesterday on the opening day of the team's minicamp.

"There's nothing but pressure on me, but I don't mind that," Neujahr said. "I've been in this system for two years. Whether or not I can do it is the biggest question. I realize this is a make-or-break deal for me."

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How seriously is Neujahr taking his unlikely opportunity? He added some noticeable upper-body bulk to his 6-foot-4 frame during the off-season, and now weighs 305 pounds, about 20 pounds more than last year. And the Ravens granted him his wish to work on the field for both minicamp practices, even though the afternoon sessions have been reserved for rookies.

Neujahr (pronounced "new year"), 26, must negotiate several adjustments to become the starting center. Besides the physical rigors that come with facing the massive defensive tackles that populate the NFL, there is the mental challenge of mastering the offensive-line calls on each play, based on the defensive scheme the center surveys. Neujahr must also gain the confidence of quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

Offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz has developed Neujahr since the Cleveland Browns signed him in December 1994. Neujahr, who started for four years at Kansas State, earning All-Big Eight honors as a senior, originally signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Raiders in August 1994.

"He knows our football team and he knows our system. It's not like he's an unknown quantity," Ferentz said of Neujahr. "He's a solid, steady, dependable, hard worker. But unless you've been a starter, there's always that stigma. Players like Quentin have to make that transition, and it's a big jump."

Neujahr, who played parts of five games in 1996, got a taste of that transition midway through last season against Denver, when Everitt left the game early in the fourth quarter with a torn pectoral muscle. Over the final eight minutes of the Ravens' 34-31 loss, Neujahr had his hands full against the likes of tackles Michael Dean Perry and Jumpy Geathers.

"In the Big Eight, the guy lining up across from you might not be that good from week to week. In the NFL, you play against the best of the best every week," Neujahr said.

Neujahr, who grew up on a farm in Surprise, Neb. -- population 56 -- was among the best athletes in his small world. He was a two-time state wrestling champion who was lightly recruited to play college football. Big Eight powerhouses like Nebraska and Colorado passed on him. Kansas State landed him.

Neujahr now lives on a farm in Liberty, Neb. -- population 74 -- where he raises cattle. His herd numbers about 140.

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"There's more people in this locker room than there are in the town where I live," he said.

"This is an important two weeks for me," he added. "I've been in this system for two years. If you can't handle an NFL playbook after two years, and if [the Ravens] don't think I can handle the power and speed of the game at this level, I'm in trouble. If I'm lining up against Jacksonville on Aug. 31 [the season opener], I'll be happy. If they bring somebody else in, that's their decision."

Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, who coached Donaldson for two years in Indianapolis, likes the experience and savvy Donaldson would bring. But he intends to give Neujahr a long look.

"Ray is a quality player, a man who has been to the Pro Bowl. He has a strong work ethic and would be a welcome addition to any team," Marchibroda said. "But we're going to use this period as an opportunity for Quentin to step forward."

NOTES: Rookie free-agent tight end Keith Olsommer walked out of minicamp after the first practice yesterday. Former Ravens defensive tackle Dan Foot- man, released two days ago, visited the Miami Dolphins yesterday. The Dallas Cowboys are reportedly going to work out free-agent linebacker Mike Caldwell, a former Raven, next week.

The Ravens have scheduled a preseason scrimmage against the Philadelphia Eagles for July 26, but the site has yet to be determined, though it probably won't be in Baltimore. The Ravens will face the Eagles three times this year, including a regular-season game. Marchibroda wanted the scrimmage to get some of his 12 rookies early work Leo Goeas, whom the Ravens signed in the off-season from the St. Louis Rams to start at left guard, did individual drills but did not work out with the first team yesterday because he is still recovering from knee surgery, said Marchibroda. Marchibroda said the Ravens again plan to run a multiple-set offense, mixing the one-back and two-back sets. When the Ravens use the two-back set, rookie Steve Lee of Indiana will provide the lead blocking for Bam Morris.

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The agent for Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware, the team's top draft pick, is expected to begin negotiations with the Ravens later this week. Boulware prefers a quick agreement. "I'm not going to get involved," said Boulware. "Hopefully they can get it done while I'm here in town and finish it as soon as possible."

Ravens tight end Eric Green will not participate in the two-week minicamp because he has not been re-signed by the team. Ozzie Newsome, vice president of player personnel, said the Ravens still might re-sign receiver Floyd Turner and outside linebacker Jerrol Williams, both unrestricted free agents. Turner's return might depend on how well second-year receiver Jermaine Lewis plays in the slot during this camp. Williams would provide depth and experience behind Boulware and Virginia rookie outside linebacker Jamie Sharper.

Pub Date: 6/04/97


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