Boselli levelheaded on, off field Jaguars: The franchise's first player and anchor of its offensive line at tackle takes nothing for granted as season opens here.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin was trying to decide whether to make Tony Boselli the first draft pick in the history of the franchise in 1995, he took him to dinner and spent hours probing his background and personality.

Coughlin came away liking what he heard.

"The key for me was the maturity he had that was beyond his years; the poise, the attitude. Tony brought a lot to the table," he said.

His fiancee, Angi, who's now his wife, also enjoyed the interview, because she found out things about Boselli she hadn't known.

"He hates talking about himself," she said.

When they started dating in spring 1993, she didn't even know he was a star offensive tackle at Southern California. He gave her the impression he was just a fringe player.

Because he was taking math and business classes, she said, "I thought he helped bring up the team's grade-point average."

On the Fourth of July that year, she attended a party, met two Stanford players and told them she was dating a USC player.

When they asked what his name was, she said: "You're not going to know him. He's from Colorado. He didn't grow up around here. He doesn't really play, but he's on the team. He's Tony Boselli."

They started laughing and suggested she check out the football magazines at a nearby store. She did and found him on the cover of one of them.

"Tell me I didn't feel like the biggest fool. I'm dating him for four months and had no idea he plays, let alone starts," she said.

Boselli was then attending the Walter Camp All-America awards ceremony.

His wife said: "He just told me he was at Walter Camp. I thought that was some sort of football camp where people went to try and get better and try to make the team. I had no idea it was some All-American honor."

Boselli doesn't deny these anecdotes but seems embarrassed by them.

"I read all these articles about me saying I'm some kind of great guy, and they make it sound like I'm some kind of saint," he said. "But I want everyone to know that I'm just a normal guy -- just like anyone else. I'm not anything anyone else couldn't be. I've just been given a great opportunity to showcase what I can do. I'm in the limelight, but I'm a pretty normal guy."

So why didn't he tell his girlfriend he was a star?

"I guess I didn't look at myself as a big star. I play in the offensive line. I don't go around telling people who I am and what I do and how good I think I am. I think that's unnecessary," he said.

Apparently, Boselli has never thought of himself as a big star.

After his freshman year in college, he told his family not to bother to make the 16-hour drive from Boulder, Colo., to Los Angeles for the annual awards banquet because he wasn't likely to get any awards.

That was before John Matsko, who was then the USC offensive line coach, called and suggested they might want to make the trip.

They did, and came back with two trophies -- Most Minutes Played, Offense, and Most Valuable Player, Offense.

But if Boselli can be quiet and unassuming off the field, he can be a tenacious competitor on it.

He demonstrated that when Baylor defensive end Scotty Lewis was quoted as saying before a game against USC that Boselli was a finesse player who only liked to pass-block.

"Tony was out of his mind before that game," said Jaguars linebacker Jeff Kopp, who was a college teammate. "That guy was like a rag doll for Tony all day. A Tony puppet."

Boselli won't concede the comments made him play any better.

"I think he said some things he shouldn't have said. But did I play any better than I would have? I don't know. I try to get fired up for every game. It didn't make me happy," he said.

He had such a dominating career that USC coach John Robinson, who coached perennial Pro Bowl player Anthony Munoz, called him the "best lineman I've ever coached."

It wasn't surprising that Coughlin decided to make him the franchise's first building block, though Boselli got off to a rocky start as a rookie when he dislocated a kneecap the second week of camp.

He didn't get into the lineup until the fourth game of the regular season, but he hasn't missed a snap since.

Yet when the team was 4-7 last year, Boselli and the team's other tackle, Leon Searcy, lured from Pittsburgh as a free agent, were getting some flak because the line wasn't dominating. The Jaguars had spent $34 million to get the two of them, so expectations were high. There were questions raised about Boselli's run-blocking ability.

"They blamed Leon and I. Nothing's fair. Leon and I, making more money, are going to get blamed for those things. It all starts with the guys up front. Everybody knows that," Boselli said.

That all changed when the Jaguars made a run to the playoffs, where Boselli neutralized the Buffalo Bills' Bruce Smith.

That performance put him on another level.

The Ravens' highly touted left tackle, Jonathan Ogden, who would like to get to that level, said: "I'm not saying he's not a good tackle. He's an excellent tackle. But he went from being a good tackle to people calling him the best tackle because of that one game."

Boselli, though, took the praise in stride, just as he did the criticism.

"You've got to be levelheaded," he said. "I've had that pressure ever since I got here. I've got expectations for myself."

Boselli will go back to the future when he blocks for his former college quarterback, Rob Johnson, when the Jaguars open the regular season at Memorial Stadium against the Ravens Sunday. Johnson took over when Mark Brunell was injured during the preseason.

Boselli said he'll play the same way blocking for the right-handed Johnson that he did blocking for the left-handed Brunell.

"We never worried about where Mark was going to be, anyway, because we never knew," he said.

His assignment against the Ravens shouldn't be too difficult because Michael McCrary, who recorded three sacks against the Jaguars last year when he was with Seattle (Boselli said only one was charged to him), is doubtful with a knee injury.

Boselli will go against backup Mike Frederick and figures to win that matchup.

Boselli, though, will take nothing for granted.

"If you're not ready to play, you're going to be in trouble. Their defense has improved. Every guy I play against, I'm nervous because I know if I don't prepare, he'll embarrass me," he said.

Boselli has all the motivation he needs, because he doesn't want the team to get off to a slow start the way it did last year.

"I want to be the best at what I do," he said. "That's what drives me. I want to give ourselves a chance to be in the playoffs again. You want to be there every year."

Next for Ravens

Season opener

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: Memorial Stadium

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

The line: Jaguars by 3

TV/Radio: Ch. 11 (subject to 72-hour blackout rule)/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Tickets: 3,100 remain

Coming tomorrow: NFL '97, a complete look at the Ravens and the NFL.

Jaguars in brief

Offense: The Jaguars lived on Mark Brunell's arm last year, but discovered Natrone Means in the playoffs when he rushed for 175 yards and 140 yards in the victories over Buffalo and Denver. He has retained the starting job in camp over James Stewart, who was injured late last season, and figures to get a lot of work until Brunell returns. Means runs behind a big offensive line anchored by Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy. If Rob Johnson plays anywhere near the level he has in the preseason, the Jaguars may survive Brunell's absence. They also have two top-flight receivers in Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith.

Defense: Now that blitzing is so much in vogue, the Jaguars are talking about doing more of it this year. Their more aggressive style resulted in 13 take-aways during the preseason, including eight by the first-string defense, compared with just 27 all last year. Their defensive line is the deepest area on the team, with such players as Tony Brackens and top draft pick Renaldo Wynn as backups so they can do a lot of rotating and keep players fresh. Kevin Hardy heads a solid linebacking corps, but their two cornerbacks, Aaron Beasley and Dave Thomas, can be exploited.

Special teams: Mike Hollis, who made 30 of 36 field-goal attempts, returns as the kicker and Bryan Barker, who slumped midway into last season, but still finished with a 43.7 net average, is back as the punter. Chris Hudson and Mike Logan are capable return men, but neither is a game-breaker.

Outlook: Who are the real Jaguars? The team that started out 4-7 or the team that stormed to the AFC title game last season? The answer may be somewhere in the middle, especially without Brunell. Their third game -- their first Monday night game against Pittsburgh -- should determine whether they have closed the gap on the Steelers. They should have a shot at a wild-card playoff berth again.

Pub Date: 8/28/97

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