Of all the things for John Harbaugh to notice, it was a thigh. Not even the whole muscle itself. Just one part of it.
The Ravens coach humble-bragged Friday that he’s got “a little weight room history.” How much does he know about kinesiology? “Enough to be dangerous.” And in his early appraisal of rookie defensive lineman Chris Wormley last year, he could tell something was off locomotively. It was like something out of a Bee Gees song: He could tell by the way Wormley walked, he had room to grow. It was time to talk.
“Hey, Worms. Come here,” Wormley recalled Harbaugh telling him before last season. “What’s up with your quads?” Wormley didn’t know what he meant. He hiked up his shorts. Harbaugh lowered himself and pointed toward the front of his thigh, just above the knee. His VMOs were lacking. “You've got to get those strong,” Harbaugh said. “You've got to get them bigger.”
A strengthened vastus medialis obliquus, the teardrop-shaped quadriceps muscle that extends the leg at the knee and stabilizes the kneecap, does not wholly explain Wormley’s step-up sophomore season — he was the Ravens’ third-highest-rated player in their loss Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, according to Pro Football Focus, after playing in just seven games last year.
But the gains do illustrate an often-overlooked facet of early-career development in the NFL. At Michigan, Wormley stood out as much for his play (two All-Big Ten Conference selections) as his size (6 feet 5, 300 pounds). Draftniks raved about his sturdily built, filled-out frame. There are few college programs as professionalized as the Wolverines’; how much stronger could he really get?
“That's where guys usually peak,” Wormley said Thursday, “and that's what I thought at first.”
Then he got to Baltimore, and into strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders’ program. Then Harbaugh asked him about his quads.
Even in high school, Wormley’s legs were as big as his decision to leave Toledo, Ohio, for Michigan was divisive. He wasn’t “chunky,” he said, but his base wasn’t exactly Schwarzeneggeresque, either. Saunders and Harbaugh took note.
Ahead of his rookie year, Wormley was assigned a new lower-body program — a mix of squats and single-leg exercises — and “he didn’t say a word,” Harbaugh said. “Went to work.”
Wormley was inactive for the Ravens’ first four games last season — he said he’d gotten his “butt kicked” during training camp — but at least his body was taking shape.
There was more definition in his legs. Lean muscle replaced fat. Larger pants no longer fit quite as snugly. “It’s always good to get new clothes,” he said, grinning.
A month into the season, in Week 5, he made his NFL debut. The next week, he started. Though the third-round draft pick appeared in just five more games over the Ravens’ final 2½ months, he was growing into someone who could not be pushed around.
“To be able take on double teams with two 330-pound guys, it all starts with your legs and that power that you generate from your legs and hips,” he said.
Entering this season, Wormley set personal goals. Some were qualitative, others quantitative. All of them are within reach, if not already attained.
He said he wanted to earn the trust of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and defensive line coach Joe Cullen; he’s played in every game this season and has more defensive snaps than every interior lineman on the Ravens (4-3) except Brandon Williams.
He said he wanted to collect his first sack; he got it in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans.
He said he wanted to finish the season with at least 25 tackles; he has nine entering Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers (4-2), including a career-high three against New Orleans.
“He has progressed in a lot of different ways, and really, in the last three weeks, you’re seeing him take off a little bit,” Martindale said Thursday. “I said we need to put some gunpowder in his food a little bit coming back from his rookie year. He’s playing a physical brand of football. He’s playing like a Raven, if you will. His pad level has been down. He’s been doing a lot of good things.”
Wormley said he feels healthier, stronger, faster this year. Coaches have fed him compliments throughout the year. They’re mostly about his play, a new performance standard he will have to reach again and again, if not surpass, with the possibly season-ending loss of defensive tackle Willie Henry (herniated disk) to injured reserve.
Harbaugh and Saunders, though — they’ve also praised how he looks. They know what’s given him a leg up: leg day, of course.
“I think it's really shown up in the way he's playing,” Harbaugh said. “He's really powerful and he's strong and he gets off blocks, all the things that he needs to work on.”
“I think the strength contributes to me playing at a higher rate than I was last year,” Wormley said. “But Harbaugh and Steve are the two main guys complimenting me.”