Back thinking big

The Baltimore Sun

Ray Rice has some of the same expectations going into his rookie year with the Ravens that he had going into his freshman year at Rutgers. He is hoping to help a rebuilding team find its way back to respectability. He is hoping to be a contributing player, not an immediate star.

"The biggest difference is that the Ravens have won a Super Bowl, and Rutgers came from where they hadn't won much," Rice said during a three-day rookie and free-agent camp that concluded yesterday in Owings Mills.

"Willis [McGahee] is established, sort of the way Brian [Leonard] was established. I can come in and contribute, just like I contributed my freshman year. I'm not going to say, 'I'm going to take his spot.' If I can lessen the load on him, then I'm doing my job."

In the nearly two months since the Ravens took him in the second round with the 55th overall pick, Rice has demonstrated that his size - 5 feet 8, 200 pounds - will not be an obstacle, just as it wasn't on the college level.

"You've heard the old saying, 'It's the size of the heart that makes a great player,' " said Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who has had good experiences coaching undersized players such as Doug Flutie, Tim Dwight and Darren Sproles. "If we felt like size was an issue, he probably wouldn't be here."

The Ravens drafted Rice in their search to find a capable backup for McGahee. Last year's backups, veterans Mike Anderson and Musa Smith, weren't brought back.

While the Ravens are confident that McGahee will be in better shape this season than he was last year, when on more than one occasion he asked to come out of games, the need for Rice, as well as third-year players P.J. Daniels and Cory Ross, to step up, is evident.

"I'm looking forward to the competition," Cameron said.

So is Rice. From the youngest age, Rice has been a confident kid looking for a challenge, said his mother, Janet Rice.

"He was very confident in everything he would do, basically," she said. "It wasn't a chip on his shoulder. It was just confidence."

In the public housing development where the family lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., Janet Rice always had a concern about whom her three boys befriended. If there was one thing that assuaged her fears of them falling in with the wrong crowd, it was that Ray, the oldest of her four children, always seemed to make the right decisions.

Much of it was based on athletics. His mother, a single parent who often worked more than one job, said Rice started hanging out with a group of older cousins and their friends who lived in the same project called "The Hollows." He began mimicking them by doing sets of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups or running the stairs.

That he was 5 and they were in their late teens - or older - didn't seem to matter to the kid everyone called "Ray-Ray."

"He was always looking to do more than a kid his age," Janet Rice said, recalling that her son learned to ride a two-wheeler when he was just 2. "They would be constantly working out, and Ray would fall right in there with them."

Despite always being among the smallest for his age group, Rice was undaunted.

Playing on a team at New Rochelle High that produced more Division I talent than any school in the area, Rice eventually became its star.

Going to a Rutgers program in the Big East basement, Rice came in quietly and became a star there too, breaking the school records for rushing yardage and touchdowns.

"It's amazing when you think about it," said Rice, who left after his junior season. "I came in at a good time because I knew where that program was headed. I thought I came into something good. I see that program being a national championship program. If they win a national championship, I can say I helped contribute to it.

"It was great to be part of something that could change."

There are similar feelings about the Ravens, with the team coming off a 5-11 season and using its first-round draft choice on Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco. Rice is certainly part of the equation.

If the audition came during the past couple of months of workouts, the opportunity will come when training camp begins next month at McDaniel College in Westminster. What will motivate Rice is the feeling he had on draft day.

Told by some teams that he would likely be an early second-round pick, Rice got a bit concerned when the Detroit Lions, who told him they would take him at No. 45, didn't call.

"Being a second-round pick, nothing is guaranteed," he said.

Little by little, the Ravens are starting to see glimpses of what Rice showed at Rutgers, what he showed back in New Rochelle, what he showed as a 5-year-old trying to keep up with his much older cousins and their friends in The Hollows.

He took that approach to this week's camp.

"You definitely have to show your game," he said. "At the same time, if you are going to make a mistake, then make it now and get it corrected so that you can come back into training camp ready to go."

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