Young and relentless Ravens: In Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis and Jamie Sharper -- all high draft picks, each age 22 -- the team has built one of the youngest, and most promising, starting linebacker crews in the NFL.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The bonding process began almost immediately, one week after the NFL draft in April, when the Ravens held their rookie minicamp. That's when second-year linebacker Ray Lewis huddled with rookies Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper off the field several times.

L The meetings were not long, but there was a running message.

"Everyone of us came from a winning program in college," Lewis said. "We're all young, intelligent and athletic, and we're all hungry. We're going to be together for at least three to four years. We talked because we definitely think we're on to something special here."

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but the Ravens' trio of 22-year-olds is one of the youngest linebacking corps to start an NFL season.

The Ravens underwent a linebacker face-lift in the off-season, releasing such veteran journeymen as Mike Croel, Keith Goganious and Jerrol Williams.

Youth is in.

Boulware, the team's top 1997 draft pick and former Florida State defensive end, will start at strong-side linebacker Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sharper, selected near the top of the second round, will play the weak side. And Lewis, one of two first-round picks a year ago, is back in the middle.

Also in the mix is second-year defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, whose job may depend on the players' development. But it's a gamble Lewis and coach Ted Marchibroda are willing to take.

"We really had no other choice," Marchibroda said. "But I firmly believe we're a lot better off with this group than we were a year ago. I know we have a better football team."

Said Indianapolis Colts linebackers coach Chuck Bresnahan: "A lot of other teams have gone through it, but not by design. It's usually because of injury. But it looks like they are willing to build from scratch with this group.

"I tell you what, though, they did a great job with Ray Lewis last year. He made some big plays for them. He'll probably have to be the leader."

An entire team stood motionless at training camp, as Ray Lewis laid on a stretcher waiting for a helicopter to transport him to the hospital after he suffered a neck injury.

Few of the Ravens command such respect.

"Ray is a real determined player," said safety Bennie Thompson. "He'll do whatever it takes to win, if it means an extra hour in the weight room or film room. Ray is one of the few players who would play this game for nothing. He gets that kind of fun out of it."

Lewis has boundless energy. He knows only one speed -- full tilt, even in practice. The coaching staff wants that kind of work ethic to rub off on Boulware and Sharper.

'Born to play football'

Of the three, Lewis has the dominant personality.

Boulware is the churchgoer. No cursing, drinking or night clubs.

Sharper has more of an edge than Boulware. He is a casual dresser, a product of the University of Virginia whose preference is khaki pants, T-shirts and sandals.

Sharper occasionally hits the night-club circuit, but he is more inclined to stay home and listen to rap and rhythm and blues. He prefers a smooth sound.

Everything about Lewis is loud. His house is like Grand Central Station. Players hang out, play pool, listen to music. Lewis invites them over to watch sports. He is constantly talking, jiving and joking.

On the field, Lewis' role will be similar to the one he had last season, when he led the Ravens in tackles with 142. His basic job is to run and crash, playing almost a peekaboo style behind defensive tackles Tony Siragusa, James Jones and Larry Webster.

But the job description has changed a little. Lewis has to tutor Sharper and Boulware.

"It's all going pretty well," Lewis said. "All the learning has been positive. It keeps me focused because I have to lead by example. I not only have to know my position, but theirs, too, so I can help them."

Lewis seems to have this teacher-pupil thing down pretty well. Sharper's and Boulware's lockers are next to Lewis'. When Lewis went down with the neck injury, Sharper's performance declined. On the field, Lewis' hands and mouth are in constant motion, giving out directions and signals.

He even has a scouting report on his proteges.

On Sharper: "Jamie looks quiet, but he isn't. He has that little edge to him, but you have to bring out his fire. He is a smart player, eager to learn."

On Boulware: "He is a kindhearted guy, a Christian. He is laid-back, always calm. But he has a motor that never stops on the football field. He has to learn how to play linebacker, but once he gets it down, he can be a force."

Maybe no one has more confidence in Ray Lewis than Marvin Lewis. A year ago, Ray Lewis was the rookie. And like Sharper and Boulware, he was expected to start immediately.

"Ray was born to play football," said Marvin Lewis. "He knows how important it was for him last year, and he didn't miss a day. These guys are pretty intelligent. They learn a lot from Ray just by watching him."

Sharper said, "Ray is like an older brother to us. He is always talking, always pushing us. He is a pretty live guy, real emotionally charged. It's a great experience to play with him. He is one of the best linebackers in the league after one year, so you got to listen to him."

Improving, adjusting

Boulware's first game was a big hit. Six big hits, to be exact. He had six tackles, including two sacks, having practiced only three days after a five-week holdout.

Sharper doesn't have Boulware's natural talent, but he is improving. He has to. It's all part of being drafted so high.

"We were starters from the day we were drafted," Sharper said. "In a way, it's kind of wanted pressure, because you have to come in and produce. You want to live up to the expectations that made Marvin and Ozzie [Newsome, vice president of player personnel] take you, but you don't want to hurt the team."

Sharper finished as Virginia's all-time leading tackler with 435 in four years, including 12 sacks. Boulware had 32 sacks in just 13 career starts at Florida State, including 19 last season, which made him the premier pass rusher in the draft.

Sharper will play a position this season similar to his one at Virginia. Boulware is learning a new position, even though the emphasis will be on rushing the quarterback. Marvin Lewis said Sharper has the more difficult job.

"Boulware has been in the same situation before," the coach said. "It's easier for him because we're going to do things to highlight his ability. Jamie has to do aggressive things to blow up schemes. We're asking him to do more reading and keying, and it's all new to him."

There have been other adjustments. Training camp is three weeks longer than in college, and the players are bigger and faster. There were times when Sharper and Boulware could physically dominate last season. Now, they need to work on technique.

Boulware also has to get in shape.

"I need a lot more work in just learning the system," Boulware said. "I'm not in the shape I need to be in; maybe in a couple of

weeks I'll be there. You're the fourth pick, you've got to have that responsibility. It's got to be your job to go in there and try to take control. Hopefully, I can go in there and do that."

Sharper said: "Sometimes I feel comfortable. Sometimes I have good days, sometimes I don't. It's definitely a learning experience."

The man in control

Marvin Lewis is taking control of this defense.

He has a much more in-your-face style than a year ago, when he had the lowest-ranked defense in the league and a lot of leftover veterans from Cleveland.

Lewis denied the approach is from pressure. It's from a different breed of athlete, he said, especially at linebacker.

"If I was there yelling at Mike Croel, he was going to freeze," Marvin Lewis said. "These guys don't get tense. They just feel the urgency in the voice. We want it to be a step-by-step process where we don't skip and have to go back. Linebacker is a position where you're right in the thick of things. You have to have discipline to play the position because you're getting attacked all the time."

Marvin Lewis knows a lot about coaching the position. He spent four years coaching linebackers with the Pittsburgh Steelers before coming to Baltimore. He coached Pro Bowl players Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd.

Lewis sees the same potential in this group. A year ago, he spent a lot of time with the defensive backs. This season, he has been almost exclusively with the linebackers.

Minnesota Vikings linebackers coach Tom Olivadotti likes what he hears about Lewis' approach.

"In a situation like that, you have to be patient," Olivadotti said. "You want to coach, but not over-coach. You want them to think, but not think so much where they are slow to react. You tell them enough, then just let them play."

Said Ray Lewis: "Marvin isn't feeling any pressure; he is just hyper to get it on. He wants to see how it clicks. We've got a talented defensive line. If they double-team one of us, then they will beat you. If they double one of them, then we shoot our guns at linebacker. Marvin is just anxious. He knows there might be something special here, too."

Pub Date: 8/29/97

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