Fighting for position on special teams

The Baltimore Sun

Gary Stills can remember the exact moment when he first figured out how he would get to play in the NFL for a long time.

It happened in 2001, during his third season with the Kansas City Chiefs, when Frank Gansz Jr. arrived as the team's special teams coach.

"He came to me one day at my locker and he said, 'Gary, you know what the deal is. You're on the bubble right now, and if you can't play special teams, you can't make the squad,' " Stills recalled recently.

In Kansas City's next preseason game - against the Washington Redskins - Stills made five straight tackles on special teams.

"I took what he said and I ran with it and I've been his special teams ace ever since," said Stills, in his second year with the Ravens and ninth year in the NFL.

Going into last night's 29-3 preseason victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at M&T; Bank Stadium, there were several Ravens trying to reprise what Stills had done against the Redskins.

Cory Ross, who made the Ravens last season mostly on his ability to return kicks and punts, faces a different struggle.

After filling in when B.J. Sams was lost with a leg injury toward the end of last season, Ross faces competition from a healthy Sams as well as from rookie Yamon Figurs, picked in the third round out of Kansas State after running the fastest time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.

In four regular-season games last year, Ross ran back nine kickoffs for 194 yards and 13 punts for 37 yards. In the team's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Ross returned six kickoffs for 124 yards and two punts for 30.

"I think it definitely gives me confidence that I can play in this league," said Ross, a running back who helped his cause by leading the Ravens with 65 yards on 11 carries last night. "You look around and see how many people can catch balls and you're always nervous. But the best thing for you to do is be calm and play football."

With so few positions available on the team's 53-man roster (and 45 who actually dress for games), rookie linebacker Edgar Jones, a free agent from Southeast Missouri, likely will be competing with sixth-round draft choice Prescott Burgess, who played at Michigan, as well as Antwan Barnes, a fourth-round pick who played at Florida International.

The competition got tougher for Jones last night. While Burgess got a sack and tied reserve linebacker Dennis Haley with a team-high six tackles, and Barnes showed potential as a pass rusher with a sack and a quarterback hurry, Jones finished with a solid but unspectacular three tackles.

Stills, who has made his niche as a special teams player on Sundays and a scout team player in practice, went to the Pro Bowl with the Chiefs in 2003. He also set a Ravens franchise record with 44 special teams tackles last season, second most in league history.

If there's anyone who understands what some of the younger Ravens are going through as the preseason unfolds, it's Stills. And what advice would he give them?

"I would tell them you've got to focus and get better [at your regular position]," said Stills, who had a fumble recovery while playing linebacker last night.

Said Gansz: "The best thing to do to make this team is to make this team better. If you're not making the team better, the percentages are against you."

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