Editor's note: This is the third in a series of profiles on Ravens draft picks whose first months as professionals have been disrupted by the NFL lockout. Coming next Sunday, Tyrod Taylor.
When Pernell McPhee arrived on campus at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss., in the summer of 2007, the 6-foot-3 defensive end tipped the scales at just 218 pounds.
Less than two years and many sessions in the weight room later, McPhee departed Itawamba for Mississippi State at a robust 278 pounds. But ask McPhee how he put on the weight so quickly and even he is mystified.
"I still ask myself that question right now," he said with a chuckle. "I have no clue how I got so big so quick. I guess from my family genes, I just got natural strength. I really did train hard in the weight room. I worked real hard, but I'll never understand how I got this big so quick and fast."
The Ravens are hoping that another transformation is in the works. The club's second pick in the fifth round of the NFL draft in April, McPhee collected just seven sacks with the Bulldogs after making 321/2 at Itawamba.
However, that did not deter the Ravens from selecting McPhee, a two-time All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, as the team's only attempt to address a pass rush that posted just 27 sacks last season — the fewest in franchise history.
"What we like about him is, he's relentless [and he] plays very hard," director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said shortly after the Ravens chose McPhee. "We had the chance to see him down in Mobile, [Ala.], at the Senior Bowl, and there were stretches when he had his way with some of the better tackles in the draft down there. We just like his motor, his mentality. He can rush the passer. He's a [junior college] kid — there was a lot of upside there. [He] was a very successful pass rusher at JC. [He] had over 30 career sacks at JC, which is attractive to us as well. We think this is a kid who has a lot of upside and who can get a lot better."
No one is anointing McPhee as the next Dwight Freeney, and with a projected starting defensive front of tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg and end Cory Redding, and end Paul Kruger and tackle Terrence Cody jockeying for space, playing time might be at a premium.
DeCosta also acknowledged that when the NFL and players ratify a new collective bargaining agreement, the team could look to shore up the pass rush in an abbreviated version of free agency.
"If we could get the opportunity to put ourselves in the position to get someone else, we would probably be looking at it very seriously," DeCosta said.
But if McPhee can force opposing offenses to slide some of their protection packages away from outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and bring a little heat of his own, his value to the team could be immense.
McPhee's journey to the NFL got off to an inauspicious start. McPhee grew up in Pahokee, Fla., a city on the Eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee that is referred to by locals as "The Muck" for the rich soil there that bears sugar cane, corn and fruit.
McPhee grew up with his great-grandmother, grandmother, older sister and nephew crammed into a one-bedroom dwelling. Money was tight and meals would sometimes alternate between grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of cornflakes. McPhee added to the family income by catching rabbits in the fields and selling the meat.
But the greatest threat to McPhee was apathy. Acknowledging that he cared little about grades and more about hanging with his friends and causing mischief, McPhee was not eligible to play football at Pahokee High for his freshman and sophomore years.
But his outlook changed before his junior year, and McPhee said there was no specific event or words of wisdom that he can point to.
"I was just trying to stay out of the streets and trying to do something positive," he said. "I wanted to make my great-grandmom happy. That's the only reason why I did that. That's the only thing I could do besides be on the street. I would play football, come home, go to sleep, wake up, go to school and do it all over again. That was my main focus. Play football and stay out of trouble. That's what I did."
Academics prevented him from suiting up in his junior season, but McPhee joined the team for every practice and offseason workout.
In the spring, the Muckers participate in what is called "Hill Week," a training regimen in which the players must climb a 50-foot-high dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Pahokee football coach Blaze Thompson said McPhee never missed a day to attack the dike's 40-degree incline.
"The remarkable thing about him was that he continued to practice with the team," Thompson recalled. "He busted his butt, but he wasn't able to play that whole year. His dedication, the way he just kept coming out and kept working hard was remarkable."
McPhee's work paid off in his senior year when he recorded 131/2 sacks and 37 tackles for loss to become The Palm Beach Post's Defensive Player of the Year for small-school teams. His performance didn't surprise Thompson.
"He was thin. He was about 6-3, but you just couldn't block him," Thompson said. "We would play him in a three down-linemen formation and as a stand-up outside linebacker, and he just couldn't be blocked. He was too quick."
Without the grades to qualify at a Division I program, McPhee enrolled at Itawamba, where he led all junior-college players in sacks in each of his two seasons and compiled 731/2tackles for loss in two seasons.
McPhee was the emotional leader of the Indians. Former teammate Khiry Karriem, who plays for Georgia State, said McPhee would mirror Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis in leading the pre-game chants, and coach Jon Williams called McPhee the "consummate team player."
"He was always lifting others up and never putting them down," Williams said. "In my opinion, there was not a whole lot of counseling that had to be done in terms of getting him to buy into the program. He's just a competitor, and I firmly believe that he could've played a few sports and been successful at them because he is a competitor."
Karriem said defensive teammates were awed by McPhee's speed and hands and often tried to emulate him. But his generosity was just as significant.
"He had a big heart," Karriem said. "He didn't have much, but whenever he did have something, he shared it with us. I really respected Pernell for that. … He paid your way for things, he would bring you food. He looked out for the next person before he looked out for himself."
McPhee's production, however, dropped off at Mississippi State, and a few reports suggested that the defensive staff's decision to use him as a stand-up pass rusher instead of his usual hands-in-the-dirt stance was a factor.
McPhee didn't buy that justification.
"That's an excuse," he said matter-of-factly. "I just didn't perform to the level that I was supposed to perform at."
Williams, McPhee's coach at Itawamba, dismissed the numbers. "Every player, regardless of level, can be critiqued to the point of being very critical," Williams said. "The thing I can tell you about Pernell is that in spite of the things that one might think is wrong with a player, there's 10 things that he does right. The intangibles he brings to a team far outweigh the critiques that one may have of him."
Getting drafted by the Ravens was more of a shock for McPhee, who said he was unaware he was on the team's radar.
"It was crazy because I never talked to them," he said. "[Wide receiver] Anquan Boldin comes from Pahokee, and he went to the same high school that I went to. So I'm going to be around a lot of veteran guys and some of the best guys at their positions. I'm going to have a lot to learn from them. I'm going to learn from them and try to be successful."
McPhee, who categorized his strengths as his physical play and desire to learn, said he intends to work on his footwork and his vision.
McPhee said his goal is to enter training camp and absorb everything his coaches and teammates dispense. "I want to learn and prepare as fast as I can," he said. "I'm going to try to get in their back pockets and make them teach me a lot of things."
To commemorate the Ravens' 15 years of existence, Jamison Hensley selects the best players in team history at each position. PG 6