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Willie Henry has evolved from forgotten man to essential Raven in span of nine games

Comb the Ravens’ roster or the team’s box scores from this season, and you won’t see the name “Big Earl.”

Just know that he looms increasingly large for the team’s personality, its fortunes for this season and its future prospects.

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“Big Earl” is Willie Henry’s nickname, invariably uttered with a smile by veteran teammates when they assess the defensive tackle’s remarkable progress this season. Some drop the “Big” and just call him “Earl.” Others go with “Willie Earl” as if he’s an old outlaw bluesman. It doesn’t much matter. All versions point to the same grinning, dancing destroyer who’s evolved from a nonentity to one of the Ravens’ key defensive players over the past nine games.

When Henry was in college at Michigan, some stories suggested “Big Earl” was the name of his snarling, on-field alter ego. But he laughs and says that was never really the case. Earl is simply his middle name, inherited from his father, Willie Earl Henry Sr.

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“It’s just who I am — a guy who’s relaxed always, goofing, playing around, kindhearted, light-spirited,” he said. “‘Big Earl’ is just something people call me. It’s all fun and games, nothing serious. I just enjoy making plays with these guys next to me, my friends. That brings joy to my heart.”

Ravens defensive lineman Willie Henry, left, forces Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel to throw away the ball in the fourth quarter in Oakland.
Ravens defensive lineman Willie Henry, left, forces Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel to throw away the ball in the fourth quarter in Oakland. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Regardless of what you call him, the 23-year-old Henry has emerged as one of the best stories on the 2017 Ravens.

He didn’t get into a single game as a rookie last season. And he came into this year as a semi-forgotten man in the team’s glut of huge, gifted defensive linemen. He was a healthy scratch the first two weeks with no clear path to playing time.

Until starter Brent Urban suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury and Brandon Williams was sidelined with a bad foot. Just like that, Henry went from an intriguing luxury to a necessity. And “Big Earl” answered the call.

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He played like he belonged from the start and has truly come on over the past three games, when he’s played more snaps than any other interior lineman on the team, even Williams. He had two sacks in the Ravens’ 23-0 shutout in Green Bay on Nov. 19 and was the team’s highest-graded player according to Pro Football Focus in Monday night’s 23-16 win over the Houston Texans.

He’s powerful enough to hold his ground against the run and quick enough off the line to reach the quarterback on passing downs. That makes him invaluable to defensive coordinator Dean Pees as he plays with lineup possibilities.

“The guy is really a smart football player and very knowledgeable,” Pees said. “I think he’s playing well and playing hard. It’s all those things. But really behind the scenes, he has a great grasp of what we’re trying to do game-plan-wise.”

Earning his spot

Henry is actually used to sneaking into view, surprising as that might be for a 6-foot-2, 308-pound man. He was an overlooked recruit and a fourth-round draft pick, never everyone’s superstar.

Henry grew up in Cleveland as an all-around athlete — the husky, agile kid who batted cleanup on the baseball team and snatched rebounds as the power forward on the basketball team. But he didn’t take football seriously until his junior year at Glenville High School, where he played for one of the most famous coaches in Ohio in Ted Ginn Sr.

Ginn, 62, has coached a string of future pros, including his son, and he quickly saw that potential in Henry. He also liked “Big Earl” immensely. But he had to stay on him.

“You see kids sometimes with talent like Willie’s, and sometimes they think it's like a light switch ... where they can turn it on and off whenever they want,” Ginn told MLive.com in 2015. “I used to always get on him about that. We always talked about that. He's such a good kid, a playful kid. I don’t know if he ever looked at himself as being great before. But we always told him, ‘you can be off the charts’ if you want.”

Henry agrees he didn’t always play with maximum intensity.

“I was young,” he said. “I was 16 years old, but [Ginn] saw at that age what it would take for me to play at [the NFL] level, that consistency I would need to have, that motor you see on Sunday.”

Glenville carried an unusual mascot name, the Tarblooders. It’s a robot figure, meant to evoke the workers who slathered hot tar on railroad ties during the height of the industrial age.

“We’re going to need a whole other interview for me to describe the Tarblooder,” Henry said, laughing as teammates look askance at the term. “It’s a whole history.”

Because he bloomed late, Henry was only rated a three-star recruit. He didn’t receive an offer from Ohio State, which had always recruited Ginn’s best players. He went to Michigan in part because his former Glenville linemate, Frank Clark, talked up the program.

Again, Henry began a phase of his career quietly, redshirting as a freshman and then playing unevenly his next two seasons. He might go a month as Michigan’s best defensive lineman, then produce little in a spotlight game.

He took a significant step forward as a redshirt junior, which also happened to be Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach. Buoyed by that strong performance and by counsel from Ginn and Clark, who had been picked in the second round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, Henry left Michigan a year early.

“I think that they felt like he should have stayed in it another year, in all honesty,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He was a developmental guy last year, but you see where this year has really come together for him. He’s just done a great a job. But, Jim really liked him — hard worker, he said, great personality.”

Henry didn’t necessarily agree that he was unprepared to play for the Ravens last season.

“I think last year, I could’ve helped the team still,” he said. “Looking back, I feel like I was ready then. But maybe the coaches saw something I didn’t.”

Because he had not been a five-star recruit and because he had not played as a true freshman at Michigan, he was prepared to make the best of a rookie year that might have seemed lost to outside observers. He says he felt disappointed but never depressed.

“It was nothing for me to come to the NFL and understand that I was still going to have to work for my playing time,” Henry said. “Nothing’s ever going to be given to me. My parents, Coach Ginn and the people that raised me taught me at an early age that you have to work for everything.”

By all accounts, he did just that.

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Terrell Suggs, healthy again after several major injuries over the past six years, continues to play at a very high level at a time when most of his NFL contemporaries have retired.

“He really got into good shape, got strong,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He has just been a force for us, not only in passing situations but against the run — and really a guy that we are relying on to come in and give valuable reps for us and be a playmaker. It is just great. As an older guy, you see young guys take the initiative and put through the effort in the offseason to really make an effort to be a good player in this league — it is awesome to see.”

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Keeping the window open

Henry is an ebullient figure in the locker room and on the field. His teammates’ affection is conveyed through the relentless grief they give “Big Earl.”

“He’s a dirtbag,” joked Williams, who often lines up beside him. “Actually, he’s just a goofball. Goofball is usually my role, but he’s just fun to be around — cool dude.”

More importantly, he appreciates the degree to which Henry complements his mauling style.

“I can take up two blockers and it usually gives him a one-on-one where he’s more the finesse, quick guy,” Williams said. “So a lot of times we can play off each other. We’ve got that good jell, that good camaraderie.”

Henry offers a simple answer when asked his favorite part of this initial burst of NFL success.

“Sunday,” he said. “Being on the field. Showing these guys that I can go out and do it. I had that cloud over my head of trying to get on the field. And now it’s time for me to make plays. Don’t look back, because the window might close.”

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