Upshaw focused on making plays, not trying to replace Suggs for Ravens

May 13, 2012 | Luke Jones

Upshaw focused on making plays, not trying to replace Suggs for Ravens

There were no mentions of “Ball So Hard University” or any other colorful quotes to fill up reporters’ notebooks.

He didn’t sing songs by Meatloaf or Celine Dion to entertain his teammates as he walked on the practice field.

His massive frame more closely resembles a defensive end than the rush linebacker who won the Defensive Player of the Year award for the Ravens a year ago.

Participating in his first minicamp after being selected with the 35th overall pick of last month’s draft, rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw made clear what everyone already knew but would rather not admit.

He isn’t Terrell Suggs, Baltimore’s top defensive player whose status for the 2012 season remains in doubt after suffering a partially-torn Achilles tendon two weeks ago. And he isn’t going to try to be the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker, either.

“There’s only one Suggs, you can’t replace Suggs,” Upshaw said following the conclusion of the Ravens’ rookie minicamp on Sunday. “Everybody has to come in as a team. I know the veteran leadership on this team is not going to allow slack on my part or anyone else. Everybody has to step up.”

Of course, the Ravens hope Upshaw can fulfill the great promise shown at Alabama as a pass rusher while learning the intricacies of the rush linebacker position at the next level. Looking stiff when dropping into pass coverage during drills on Sunday, Upshaw admitted he intends to trim weight from his 6-foot-2, 272-pound body to improve both his conditioning and quickness as the Ravens move closer to training camp.

But his first minicamp was more about learning the terminology for a defense similar to what Upshaw saw as a member of the Crimson Tide. Once he’s more comfortable knowing what he’s supposed to do, the 22-year-old can begin fine-tuning the intricacies of pass coverage that also gave Suggs difficulty in his early years with the Ravens.

“It’s definitely more than what I was dropping (in college),” Upshaw said. “I’ve got to get more used to it, being a drop linebacker. Everybody knows I can pass-rush, and I did that a lot at Alabama. But I’m very prepared and capable of doing it, so I’m learning the terminology and once I get everything down, I’ll be ready to go.”

While nearly everyone in town has offered their thoughts on how realistic it will be for Suggs to return in the latter half of the season, it’s a question that will remain unanswered for several months. Even if Suggs is capable of getting back on the field, there’s no telling whether he will possess the same explosiveness that not only tormented left tackles and quarterbacks but forced offensive coordinators to alter their game plans against the Baltimore defense.

For now, the Ravens can only prepare as if Suggs will not return this season. The significance of the loss cannot be overstated, but Baltimore will draw on past experiences losing other defensive leaders in which the defense was still able to play at a high level.

“We’re a team,” said coach John Harbaugh, who confirmed Suggs’ professed four-to-six timetable for a potential return was in line with what the team has gathered. “That’s why you draft guys and bring guys in. It’s never about one guy ever. I know Terrell said that and all our guys said that. We’ve done that before. We’ve handled losses to our biggest stars, Ray [Lewis], Ed [Reed], and now Terrell. It’s all happened in the last two years. It will be up to all of us to do a little bit better, and we intend to improve everything we do.”

Upshaw will factor heavily into that team effort along with the likes of Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee in generating a formidable pass rush and making up for the other factors created by Suggs that didn’t always show up on the stat sheet, such as the favorable matches created for teammates and the flexibility for defensive coordinators to use the blitz with more discretion. The Alabama rookie has heard the expectations — and the many comments from Ravens fans on Twitter telling him how he needs to step up right away — but Upshaw is taking nothing for granted.

While he compared competing with fellow rookies this weekend to the football factor that is the Southeastern Conference, Upshaw knows it will be a different story when the veterans arrive for organized team activities over the next few weeks.

“I’ve got these goals and the mindset to compete,” Upshaw said. “That’s my No. 1 goal. If I’m able to get on the field and make plays — that’s what I want to do.”

And if Upshaw is able to provide a respectable fraction of what Suggs brings to the equation in his rookie season, it will be a step in the right direction and a significant puzzle piece for the Baltimore defense.

To hear more from Courtney Upshaw and John Harbaugh as well as Kelechi Osemele, Bernard Pierce, Asa Jackson, Tommy Streeter, and rookie free-agent kicker Justin Tucker, visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault HERE.

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