Opposing linebackers and defensive backs have found Willie Snead IV hard to pin down this preseason, the Ravens wide receiver in one place until he’s in another, only now with the ball, his dyed-blond tips bouncing along on the ride. On his best days, it is easy to forget that he went undrafted in 2014.
But about 50 miles to the east of the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield, where the Ravens and Indianapolis Colts practiced together Friday for the first of two days ahead of their Monday night game, is an homage to who he once was, a reminder that who Snead has become is by design.
Snead was a two-time first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection at Ball State. He might have just as well put a padlock on the program’s receiving records had he returned for his senior season in 2014. He settled for 2,991 receiving yards (second all time), 26 receiving touchdowns (also second) and 223 receptions (a mere third). His last season in Muncie, the Cardinals won 10 of 13 games, their most since 2008, more than they've won over the past three seasons combined.
For all that Snead gave Ball State, the program in turn gave him the Fathead treatment: His life-size likeness is plastered on a wall at the school’s Fisher Football Training Complex.
“It's an amazing feeling,” Snead said Friday. “I was kind of excited because I haven't been back here in, like, three, four years, and I've been here at Ball State for three years, and just to be able to come back to the Indiana life, it's kind of exciting.”
With most of the Ravens and Colts whisked away on golf carts at the end of a partly drenched practice, Snead drew a crowd of reporters near one end zone.
He was asked about his ties to third-year Ball State coach Mike Neu, who overlapped with Snead in New Orleans as the Saints' quarterbacks coach: “He was a great dude, man, and I was just happy for him. He deserved it. He's been in New Orleans for a long time … and to hear he got the job three years ago, it was just an awesome feeling for him.”
He was asked about being honored as a “True Cardinal” by the program, with an in-game image of Snead at the Ball State facility bracketed by all-caps words like “PASSION” and “RELENTLESS” and “PRIDE IN THE LITTLE THINGS”: “I love it, man. Ball State's been really good to me, both football and academics. So it's been a great time being a Cardinal, and I'll always be grateful to them.”
Appropriately, the Snead snapshot is at the top of a set of stairs. Thirty-three wide receivers were taken in the 2014 NFL draft. Snead was not one of them. He nearly caught on with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2014, had a tryout with the New York Giants, got on to the Carolina Panthers' practice squad, then the Saints'.
Midway through the 2015 season, he was starting for New Orleans. Over that year and the next, he had 141 catches for 1,879 yards and seven touchdowns. His play through three weeks of preseason has so far been more reminiscent of that Snead, not the one who last season finished with eight catches in 11 games, his production limited somewhat by a hamstring injury and his image dented by a June drunken-driving arrest.
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Snead quickly has become one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s more trusted targets, and on Friday he again flashed an ability to get open against defenders who are not his teammates.
“I think it's been jelling really well,” he said. “Joe's been feeling really good about every one of us, just getting the chemistry down and the timing, everything like that. You know, as we're getting closer to the season, the anticipation builds and guys have been flashing here and there, so it's kind of like we all want to put it all together and get out there on Sundays. But the vibe has been great, and I'm just looking forward to it.”
Friday’s practice was a reminder of what could have been, and of what the reality in Baltimore actually is. On one side of the practice was Colts wide receiver Ryan Grant, who in March had a four-year, $29 million contract with the Ravens voided after a failed physical.
On the other side was Snead, who is making the Ravens forget that they ever wanted anyone else.
“We love Willie Snead,” Harbaugh said. “Snead's been nothing but a pleasure, nothing but a professional. Works harder than most guys you'll ever see. … He's always got a little chip on his shoulder. He always feels like he's got something to prove, and those are the kind of guys that make it in this league.”