In the past three days, Jeff Mitchell has been the center of a lot of attention.
With regular center Wally Williams not attending minicamp because of contract negotiations, Mitchell, 6 feet 4, 300 pounds, has been running with the first-team offense. And holding his own.
Mitchell, in his second year out of the University of Florida, isn't ready for prime time yet, but he has made steady progress since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the first full week of training camp last season.
"It feels good. I still don't have all the explosiveness yet," said Mitchell. "But playing now is important for me as far as getting experience and attention from the coaches. I need to work more on technique and getting back the coordination."
Mitchell was the team's fifth-round draft pick in 1997, but he practiced only one week last season. The injury came two days into the first full week of training camp in July and two days after left guard Sale Isaia tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Mitchell had missed the second half of his senior season in college because of a broken ankle. The latest injury was stunning.
"I thought about if I would play again. I didn't feel like I was part of the team. I was lurking, like a ghost," said Mitchell of his rehabilitation. "It was tough. I was pretty depressed the whole year."
Mitchell would often speak with Isaia. They become workout partners.
"The injuries were a setback for both of us," Isaia said. "I think Jeff took it harder because it was his first year in the league. He is married and had his wife, but I guess it was nice to have someone else there. I told him to just keep working through it because a year goes by quick and next season will be here before you know it.
"We worked out together because we pretty much had the same injury. I understand what he is going through because I'm still having problems moving my feet."
Mitchell has all the tools to play the position. He was selected four times to the Academic All-Southeast Conference squads while at Florida and is smart enough to read defenses and make the proper blocking calls. He is tough and durable, a power-lifter who bench presses more than 480 pounds.
He can certainly pass-block, having spent his college career with the pass-happy Gators.
But Mitchell needs to get more playing time to recognize defenses, and run-blocking is a new adventure. And then there is the knee problem.
Even Mitchell conceded he isn't ready to replace Williams. But if he continues to develop and the Ravens re-sign Williams to a long-term contract, Mitchell could start at center and Williams at guard in the future. That move could strengthen the Ravens' offensive line.
"I know the plays. They are the same as last year except for the ones using the two-back set," Mitchell said. "The adjustment to run-blocking has been tougher than I thought, and I still need to work on getting low. But I'm getting better every day."
"He is well on the road to returning," said offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz. "Like all young players, he is still getting comfortable with the offense, and there is more pressure on him because he starts the communication process on the offensive line. He has already been through two phases, and the third will be in training camp when he puts the pads on. Then when he starts hitting, that's when he has to develop total confidence in his knee."
"Jeff has always been strong, but he has gotten stronger while rehabilitating," said Ravens defensive tackle Larry Webster. "Either as a backup or starter, he is going to be a big addition to this football team. The strength, the quickness, the brains, it's all there. We already know that he knows the passing game and can pass-block."
Pub Date: 6/05/98