Thirty minutes after the Ravens ended practice yesterday, special teams coordinator Gary Zauner stood in one end zone with undrafted rookie B.J. Sams and offered a few final tips, a scene reminiscent of a trainer in the locker room with a boxer before a big fight.
For Sams, the fight for his professional career is approaching fast, and he suddenly has become the favorite. Sams has a chance to knock off incumbent Lamont Brightful with a strong showing tomorrow night against the Detroit Lions and become the Ravens' return specialist this season.
Coaches are taking every opportunity to make sure he is well-equipped to do so, even if it means having Sams field a dozen extra punts after practice, as was the case yesterday.
"I'm nervous a little bit going into my first NFL game, but I have to do what I can do and show them everything I've got," Sams said.
Sams has become the chosen one, in part, because he has some of the best hands on the team (a stark contrast to Brightful, who has struggled catching the ball the past two seasons and all of training camp). After missing the first two preseason games with a broken thumb, Sams will split the punt-return duties with Lance Frazier against the Lions.
In Sams, the Ravens have a rookie free agent who is being talked about as much as Will Demps was when he burst onto the scene with a game-ending interception return for a touchdown in his first preseason game in 2002.
It was easy to see why coaches were enamored with Demps, who made interceptions daily in practice, but Sams, listed as a running back, has practiced only a handful of times since the start of training camp because of his injury.
What has made him such a favorite?
"He's had 23 days of minicamp and [training] camp where he had not dropped a punt, kick or offensive pass," Zauner said. "That's a pretty good record. He was the only one that had a record going where he had not dropped anything."
How about after the catch?
"As far as in drills, guys like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis made comments like we don't have anybody that can cover him coming out of the backfield," Zauner said. "The offensive coaches were saying things about what they saw, I'm looking at what I see as a special teams coach, and the defensive coaches were saying what they saw from covering him. Between the staff and the players, we've seen some talent there."
Sams has felt the support from teammates.
Often times, rookies, especially undrafted ones, are ignored, but that has not been the case with Sams.
"A lot of the veterans out there are like, 'Good job,' every time I catch the ball," Sams said. "They want to see me succeed. On the practice field, I catch every ball, but they want to see me do it [in the game]."
But do not expect Brightful to go quietly. The Ravens brought in Dedric Ward last year to ignite a fire in Brightful, and he responded by having at least a 30-yard kickoff return in five straight games.
Brightful also has a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown (in 2002), yet realizes he is in a precarious situation. Brightful is third on the punt-return depth chart behind Sams and Frazier mainly because he fumbled away his first attempt in the preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons and had a few bad practices after that.
"It's different when you are used to going out there and doing your thing," said Brightful, who will return kickoffs tomorrow. "But I'm not the type of person that is going to get all hotheaded about it."
Seventh-round draft pick Derek Abney, who was to be Brightful's chief opposition heading into training camp, has adopted the same attitude.
Abney sprained his shoulder against the Falcons and has not practiced since. Abney is out tomorrow and is highly doubtful for next week's preseason finale against the New York Giants.
"I really haven't had much of a chance for them to check me out," Abney said. "The things that I can control [are] going to rehab as much as I can and getting in the playbook. Besides that, it's out of my hands."
Abney's absence and Brightful's struggles have cleared a path for Sams to win the job.
"When I worked him out at his school, my comment was he was the best punt catcher I'd seen in a long time, since David Palmer," Zauner said. "Now, can he do it when the lights are on?"
Next for Ravens
Preseason matchup: Detroit Lions (1-1) vs. Ravens (1-1)
Site: M&T; Bank Stadium
When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 45, Comcast SportsNet/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line: Ravens by 4