Ravens' Oher focused on developing into elite left tackle

There's no pretense to Michael Oher.

The massive offensive tackle for the Ravens enjoyed an offseason during which his autobiography, "I Beat the Odds," peaked at No. 3 on the New York Times bestsellers list and he was the darling of major media outlets like ABC News' "20/20" and Headline News.

But since reporting to training camp Tuesday, Oher's focus has shifted to football and his development as the team's left tackle.

"It was a nice thing," Oher said of the positive reaction his memoir generated, "but I know that football is No. 1. Anything off the field is extra. Being the best player I can be, that's the most important thing to me. It's a great accomplishment, but I'm not focused on that."

Oher's commitment centers on improving his performance at left tackle, where he was saddled with the assignment of keeping the likes of Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali from making mincemeat of quarterback Joe Flacco.

For the most part, Oher was successful, but he did lead the offensive line in two dubious categories: penalties (11) and sacks allowed (7).

The running game also slipped. The offense's rushing average of 114.4 yards in 2010 was a far cry from the 137.5-yard average in 2009 when Oher was the right tackle in his rookie season and Jared Gaither made the majority of starts at left tackle.

The Ravens selected an offensive tackle, Jah Reid out of Central Florida, in the third round of the draft in April, but he is expected to compete with Oniel Cousins for playing time at right tackle. In a recent Q&A with The Baltimore Sun, coach John Harbaugh made it clear that there is no dispute or confusion over Oher's position.

"I think it's at left tackle," Harbaugh said of Oher's future. "He's a very athletic guy. There's no mold for a football player at any position. Michael Oher is a lot more athletic than a lot of right tackles. So, he's got great feet and a great punch. He's very smart and very competitive. I see no reason why he can't be a top left tackle in this league."

While appreciative of the vote of confidence, Oher said he can't afford to be content or complacent.

"Nothing's ever etched in stone," he said. "You're going to have to continue to work and continue to get better. Have to protect guys like Joe Flacco. He's a valuable player, and we need him to win big games."

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron predicted that 2011 could be a banner year for Oher.

"It's still early, but again, I know I am partial to these guys, but I think Michael is a great player," Cameron said. "I think he has come in in great shape. He is the one guy who was out here in 100-degree heat with a sweat top on because he knew he could withstand it. He is ready. He is a football player. [There is] no doubt in my mind that he is going to have a great year."

Oher has an easy smile and loves to joke with his teammates. But when it's time to practice, go into meetings or talk to the media, Oher's intensity comes to the forefront.

During a 15-minute interview in the hallways of the team's practice facility in Owings Mills on Saturday, Flacco, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and punter Sam Koch each tried to break Oher's concentration by stopping to listen to his answers or staring at him. Oher said, "Hi," or ignored their attempts and never missed a question or asked that it be repeated.

Despite obligations attached to the book, Oher spent a generous amount of time in the offseason honing his craft. Without divulging his training regimen ("a few things that are secret," he said), Oher said he added six pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-3, 313-pound frame.

Oher often declines to evaluate his past performances, but he acknowledged that there is room for improvement if he wants to join the company of Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace, two elite offensive tackles he tried to model himself after while he was playing in high school and college.

"Still getting better, still learning," Oher said of his development. "I have a ton of things I need to work on, and I can still get better. I'm trying to help us win the big game."

Left guard Ben Grubbs, one of Oher's closest friends on the team, said last year's troubles weighed on Oher, a perfectionist when it comes to football, basketball and even cornhole.

"I think last year, the transition from right to left [tackle] for him didn't go as he planned," Grubbs said. "So since he's been through a year at left tackle, he knows what to expect. He's willing to take on any and every challenge that may come his way. I know Mike, and I know him well, and I know he'll be one of the best left tackles in the league this year."

One area that plagued Oher was his timing before center Matt Birk snapped the ball to Flacco. Oher was flagged for a team-high eight false starts, which can cripple offensive drives.

Coaches like Harbaugh and teammates like Grubbs defended Oher, asserting that the tackle's reflexes were so quick that it would appear to officials that he was moving before the ball was snapped.

Refusing to pin any blame on the officials, Oher said the onus is on him to cut down on those penalties.

"You've just got to fix it," he said. "You can't be illegal. So you've got to fix whatever you're doing wrong. Got to fix the flags. That's the one thing I'm trying to focus on this year. Fixing the penalties that I had that hurt the team."

Although he is entering his third year in the NFL, Oher has become a veteran on the offensive line and a source of information for younger teammates. One person studying Oher is Reid.

"You know, he helps me with different techniques," Reid said. "He's a great person to watch, you know, when we have our meetings. I'll be on one side not doing so great, and then the coach tells me to look at him, so that helps a lot. He's a great person to model myself after and hopefully live up to how he's been doing. It's good to be in the meeting room with him."