It's not hard to spot Darren Waller at a Ravens practice. He's the guy who appears to have wandered into the wrong position group.
Surrounded by men a head shorter with legs that resemble matchsticks compared to his, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Waller just looks like a somebody. Then you watch him line up wide and either glide past the cornerback or leap over a smaller defender to catch a long pass, and you grasp why this towering rookie wide receiver sparks the imagination of football men.
"Anytime a guy that big can run that well, you get excited," says Paul Johnson, Waller's coach at Georgia Tech.
Certainly, the Ravens have lusted — mostly in vain — after a power receiver to make opposing cornerbacks feel like pip-squeaks. After several months watching Waller soak in the pro game, they believe he has a chance to be the guy.
Yet the sixth-round NFL draft choice still resides firmly in the land of could be.
Expected 'to be somebody'
In part because he didn't touch the ball much in Johnson's run-heavy option attack and in part because poor off-field decisions derailed him, Waller did not produce at a level that stamped him a surefire star. In fact, he didn't think of himself as a guaranteed pro until late in his Georgia Tech career.
He's used to people musing about his potential. When you're a swift, oversized receiver at Georgia Tech, the comparisons to former Yellow Jackets Demaryius Thomas (Denver Broncos) and Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions) are inevitable. That's eight Pro Bowls worth of pressure on a young man's shoulders.
"I've heard it all for a long time," he says. "When I put pressure on myself, I make sure it's good pressure. It's just to be a lot better than I was the day before or the week before. I keep it as simple as possible."
Sure, he studies Thomas and Johnson. He admires the way Ravens teammate Steve Smith Sr. has smoothed every imperfection from his routes through years of precise practice and the way Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham expertly uses his body to shield defenders from the ball.
But Waller, 22, doesn't want to get ahead of himself. He's only now grasping the level of dedication required to become one of those guys.
"I'm trying to learn from them so I can be a complete player and not just like a one-trick pony," he says. "The Ravens expect me to be somebody who can do a lot of things, and I expect that out of myself. Because potential runs out after awhile. You've got to capitalize on it or you're going to let it fade away."
So far so good, say Ravens coaches, who've been impressed with Waller's enthusiasm and aptitude for learning his craft.
"He's very detailed and detailed-oriented in everything he does in the classroom," says offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. "Again, the competition and being around Steve [Smith Sr.] and being around Marlon [Brown] and Kamar [Aiken] and the guys that have played in this league, I think has just pushed him to grow, and he has. He's playing faster. His route-running is cleaner and more detailed. He has become a little more physical."
Waller gave himself a jolt of confidence in Saturday's preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, catching a short pass from Bryn Renner in the fourth quarter and bulling past defenders for his first professional touchdown.
It was a moment that might have been hard for him to imagine at this time last year, when he was preparing to sit out the first two games of his senior season because of a violation of team rules, which he later acknowledged was a positive test for marijuana.
As he prepared for the draft, Waller faced repeated questions about the suspension, which Johnson, the Georgia Tech coach, blames on basic immaturity.
Waller agrees he was immature but says his mistake also spoke to a deeper flaw. He allowed himself to goof off like a regular college kid in part because he wasn't confident he could become something special as a football player. He didn't realize how much he had to lose.
"I never saw myself as legit," he says. "I was just enjoying where I was, enjoying the college experience too much. But when I finally realized I could do things other people can't do, that's when I started focusing in. So, I guess better late than never."
In need of polish
Waller was born in Landover, but his family moved to Kennesaw, Ga., about 25 miles outside downtown Atlanta, when he was 4 years old. His father, Dorian, works in information technology and his mother, Charlena, as a real estate appraiser. His great grandfather was the virtuoso jazz pianist and composer, Fats Waller.
He didn't catch the football bug from either of his parents. But they recall him watching NFL Films documentaries even as a young child. He played quarterback until high school, when elbow surgery robbed him of his arm strength. So he switched to safety, the position he expected to play in college.
He says his old defensive mindset is invaluable on special teams, where he might receive the majority of his playing time as a Ravens rookie, and even on offense.
"You've got to know when to use that defensive mindset, just kind of blowing stuff up and making your presence known," he says. "They've been telling me to channel that and use it on offense when it's needed."
Johnson said he always planned to use Waller at wide receiver because of his intriguing blend of size and speed (4.46 second in the 40-yard dash).
But Waller couldn't always tell where he stood in an offense that simply didn't emphasize receiver play. Though he started 10 games as a sophomore, he caught just eight passes. He became a more potent deep threat as a junior and saved his best for last, catching five passes for 114 yards in his last college game, an Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
He then impressed scouts from the Ravens and other NFL teams with the way he outmuscled and outran defenders at the East-West Shrine Game. The guy who'd doubted his legitimacy just a few months earlier was suddenly a likely draft prospect.
Johnson dismisses talk of how few passes his receivers see in college. "It didn't seem to hurt Demaryius Thomas, did it?" he says. "I guarantee you [Darren] knows how to run a curl, a deep out, a post."
But Waller says there's some truth to the idea he needs more polishing than rookies from pass-oriented college programs.
"At Tech, the passing game was really simple," he says. "It was really off play action. It wasn't about dissecting coverages or really finding holes in the defense. There are a lot of mental aspects of the game, just sitting down and being a student, that I needed to improve on. Because it's just something I didn't have to do in college."
Baltimore Ravens Insider
He believes he's made great strides in just a few months with the Ravens. No longer do his feet get sluggish as he counts off the steps of a route in his head. Now, he usually breaks at the right time without thinking.
He particularly enjoys working with receivers coach Bobby Engram, who balances between chastising Waller for amateurish mistakes and comforting him as a voice of NFL experience.
During training camp practices, Engram and other coaches often pulled the big rookie aside for instructive chats. He took this not as a sign he was messing up, but as an indication of their high hopes for him.
For perhaps the first time in his career, he understands why people see such possibility in Darren Waller.
"The coaches here, no matter what my role is going to be, however it may change down the road, they're in it for me to be a better man and a better player," he says. "That's motivation. That's what I want for myself."