Three years ago, the Boise State football team was preparing to face Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference championship game. They’d played once before that season, and Andy Avalos, then the Broncos’ linebackers coach, recalled that the defense’s game plan did not change much between meetings. Boise had won by double digits seven weeks earlier.
In practice, the scout team offense called for a number of counter runs, as the Broncos expected the Bulldogs would in their rematch. That meant sophomore Kamalei Correa, a rising star at Boise’s stand-up defensive end position, often faced pulling guards at the line of scrimmage. It was not supposed to be easy.
At one point, Correa had to be removed from practice. Not because he was hurt, or struggling. Because the scout team’s continued existence was important. “He was just lighting these dudes up,” Avalos said. Correa was so comfortable the second time around, the coach explained, that his intensity made head coach Bryan Harsin a little uncomfortable. Correa and his teammates were asked to throttle down; even the first-team offense had stopped practicing to watch and listen.
“I remember that practice, and talking to him now as we go through these challenges in his life, it's, ‘Let's get back to that. Let's get comfortable,’ ” Avalos, now Boise State’s defensive coordinator, said this week of Correa, now a Ravens linebacker. “Figure out what we got to do to become that guy you were at practice that week and ultimately the player you were in that conference championship game.”
Correa finished with just half a sack, but the Broncos held Fresno scoreless for nearly three quarters in a 28-14 win. In the Fiesta Bowl, he secured an upset against No. 10 Arizona with a last-second, game-ending sack, one of a conference-best 12 in a résumé-making second season that little resembled his first.
As the July 27 start of Ravens training camp nears, there may be no veteran with more distance to cover than the one farthest from home. Correa, a Honolulu native, played in just nine games his rookie season, starting none, and made four tackles before hitting injured reserve (ribs). The linebacker taken after him in the second round of the NFL draft, the Atlanta Falcons’ Deion Jones, had 108 tackles in 15 games, starting 13.
But with the retirement (for now, anyway) of leading tackler Zachary Orr, Correa is the favorite to start alongside C.J. Mosley at inside linebacker. What he lacked last year — a grasp of the playbook, stability at one position, the confidence of the coaches and ownership — he now has. In his second year, the league’s realities seem to be second nature.
Which is good news for the Ravens, and possibly bad news for opposing pulling guards.
“I would say, in Year 2, you just kind of know what to expect and what's coming,” Correa said in a recent interview. “You know the playbook a lot better, you know where your help is, you know what you're doing and you're not just running around like a chicken with his head cut off. So really, you just kind of get a better feel. And really, it's just not so crazy.”
Before the craziness began, Correa was a standout early in training camp last year, quickly ascending the depth chart at inside linebacker, a position then largely foreign to him.
Then his season went sideways. In the team’s first practice at M&T Bank Stadium, Correa scuffled with starting tight end Dennis Pitta. Correa threw a punch, Pitta grabbed his facemask, and as it came off, Pitta’s finger bent awkwardly. What was diagnosed at first as a sprain was actually a fracture, and Pitta missed all of the preseason.
“It’s absurd that it even happened,” coach John Harbaugh said.
Correa said after the fight that he was just doing what he’d been asked to. Actually, he was asked to do a lot. That was perhaps the problem. Before Correa’s struggles became a matter of fan base-wide concern, defensive coordinator Dean Pees acknowledged in early August that he was “probably doing maybe a little too much. … He's playing a lot of positions, might be too many."
It wasn’t the coaches’ fault, but his own, Correa said. In Boise, Avalos was reminded of Correa’s difficult first year in Idaho. He played as a true freshman, but he lagged the team’s veterans in his commitment to the “brotherhood of the culture.” Explained Avalos: “Meeting that standard on an everyday basis can be draining on a young guy.”
Correa’s passion, for as bright as it burned, could sap his game or strengthen it. When he struggled as a freshman, Avalos said, Correa took it personally, maybe to his detriment. The next year, his first as a starter, Correa was even-keeled, more mature. He handled failure like someone who has seen enough rainy days to know that the sun would shine on him eventually.
Safety Eric Weddle, whose first year with the Ravens was as sharp as Correa’s was lacking, said the 23-year-old “hit a wall” last year. Now he’s more confident, Weddle said — confident enough to be himself, the guy who enjoys a hot-rock Kālua pig roast as much as the next Hawaiian.
“Last year was tough, and this year, [I wanted] to just be myself — have fun,” Correa said. “That has really been my main thing this year, and that is not even starting with on the field. That is just off the field, in the meeting rooms, when I go home with my family, just be myself. Because if you can actually be yourself in the meeting room, in the locker room and everything, it is just going to translate to on the field.”
That is the hope in the organization, from the owner’s box on down. Steve Bisciotti last month predicted Correa’s emergence this year, saying: “We have seen a rejuvenated, focused player that we think is going to do very well for us.”
The coaching staff’s reappraisals are no different. Harbaugh said in March that he was “very confident” Correa could win a starting job, and Pees said near the end of OTAs that he was “very, very pleased” with his improved comprehension of defensive assignments.
“It's really just a backup of what I'm trying to do this year, so I think it's a good foundation,” Correa said of their support.
“But at the end, it's really up to me if I want the job or not. There's a lot of competition, and it's not going to be easy, so if I do get the job, then, uh … ,” he continued, before pausing briefly, as if considering the very real, not-at-all-crazy possibility, “I appreciate it.”