Noth­ing comes eas­ily for an NFL rookie, and Ravens linebacker Jay­lon Fer­gu­son wouldn’t have it any other way

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Childs Walker

Jay­lon Fer­gu­son does not want any­thing to be easy. “I al­ways ac­cept a chal­lenge,” the Ravens linebacker said Mon­day af­ter an­other sweaty prac­tice at the team’s facility in Owings Mills. “I rush from the hard side of the field, where the quar­ter­back can see me. I don’t rush from the blind side. I like a lit­tle ex­tra chal­lenge.” That men­tal­ity served the 23-year-old rookie well in his first months as an NFL player, be­cause the pro game did not come eas­ily. He’d over­pow­ered many a col­lege blocker in his record-set­ting ca­reer at Louisiana Tech. But that was no longer pos­si­ble against NFL of­fen­sive line­men, who matched his strength and quick­ness and seemed pre­pared for ev­ery pass-rush­ing trick. Fer­gu­son ap­peared over­whelmed at times dur­ing off­sea­son work­outs.

“Ev­ery­body’s real, real, real fast,” he said. “So it’s all about catch­ing up.”

He’s started to do that of late, es­pe­cially in Thurs­day night’s pre­sea­son opener against the Jack­sonville Jaguars. Fer­gu­son reg­is­tered a tackle for loss and a quar­ter­back hit in 24 de­fen­sive snaps.

“I re­ally liked what we saw from Jay­lon Fer­gu­son.,” Ravens de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Don “Wink” Martin­dale said. “He’s just go­ing to get more and more play­ing time. He made it sim­ple, just be­ing phys­i­cal with the man across from him. He wasn’t think­ing about 10 other things, which rook­ies do. You saw a lot of good rushes, and you saw his power, which we’ve been look­ing for in train­ing camp go­ing against some­body else.”

Fer­gu­son’s progress will be of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est this week, when Za’Dar­ius Smith, the Ravens’ most pro­duc­tive pass rusher last sea­son, re­turns to town with the Green Bay Pack­ers.

The Ravens lost Smith and Ter­rell Suggs in free agency, leav­ing their de­fense no­tably thin on the edges. They drafted Fer­gu­son, who broke Suggs’ NCAA­ca­reer sack record, to be part of the so­lu­tion. The Ravens were thrilled when he fell to them at the 85th over­all pick. They had ex­plored trad­ing up to take him ear­lier.

Gen­eral man­ager Eric DeCosta did not hes­i­tate to put pres­sure on his new linebacker, not­ing the “big hole” Fer­gu­son was ex­pected to help fill.

Re­al­ity set in when Fer­gu­son ar­rived for or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties in May. Yes, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound rookie looked the part of an NFL pass rusher, but he played he­si­tantly.

“I just have to do a good job of slow­ing the game down for him,” Ravens de­fen­sive line coach Joe Cullen said re­cently, hint­ing at the rookie’s steep learn­ing curve.

Fer­gu­son praised his vet­eran team­mates for coun­sel­ing him through the in­evitable strug­gles.

“I’m still a rookie and I’m still learn­ing, still mak­ing strides,” he said. “But I think the big­gest thing I’ve got go­ing for me is the sup­port of my team­mates in the room with me. I might mess up in prac­tice or get some­thing wrong in the meet­ing, but they’re al­ways help­ing. They’re quick to cor­rect, but they’re not in­sult­ing me. One thing I love about the room is that ev­ery­one re­al­izes it’s go­ing to take all of us to win.”

Vet­eran out­side linebacker Per­nell McPhee, who plays a sim­i­lar power-ori­ented game, has taken a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in him.

“That’s my young buck,” McPhee said. “I’m just try­ing to teach him some of the ropes that I know and try to let him be him­self at the same time. They don’t call him ‘Sack Mas­ter’ for noth­ing, so he’s just learn­ing a new level of game on the next level.”

Ac­tu­ally, the nick­name is “Sack Daddy,” but don’t ex­pect Fer­gu­son to cor­rect McPhee.

“You can’t help but lis­ten to him,” Fer­gu­son said. “The coaches have their ways to play, but then McPhee has his way to play from ex­pe­ri­ence. So to have him in my corner, giv­ing feed­back ev­ery time, it’s a real con­fi­dence booster. I ap­pre­ci­ate the heck out of him for ev­ery­thing he’s do­ing.”

Coaches and team­mates such as McPhee have en­cour­aged Fer­gu­son to un­leash the power and ag­gres­sion that set him apart in the first place. He’s a bull at heart.

“I’m a power rusher,” he said. “That’s my thing.”

Ravens coach John Har­baugh said the rookie showed more than just straigh­ta­head push against the Jaguars, how­ever. “His use of hands, he’s kind of slip­pery in there,” Har­baugh noted af­ter re­view­ing the game film.

Fer­gu­son grinned as he dis­cussed his de­but at M&T Bank Sta­dium.

“It felt like the first step of many,” he said. “My first NFL game, even though it was the pre­sea­son. I felt like it was my Su­per Bowl. I had a good time, and I played pretty good.”

Away from the Ravens, one of Fer­gu­son’s most cher­ished sup­port­ers is his younger brother, Jazz, who’s try­ing to make the Seat­tle Sea­hawks as an un­drafted freeagent wide re­ceiver out of North­west­ern State. On the same night Fer­gu­son busted out against the Jaguars, his brother scored a touch­down against the Den­ver Bron­cos.

They do their best to talk ev­ery day as they go through sim­i­lar tri­als, sep­a­rated by thou­sands of miles.

“My brother, we’ve been to­gether so long that it’s weird not see­ing each other ev­ery day,” Fer­gu­son said. “The ul­ti­mate goal is to end up on the same team again, maybe in the Pro Bowl.”

The Pro Bowl com­ment hints at an ath­letic bravado that bub­bles un­der­neath Fer­gu­son’s hum­ble de­meanor. He speaks in a quiet Louisiana drawl and de­fers to his elders, but he’s con­fi­dent he’ll solve the art of NFL pass rush­ing, which he refers to as “one big game of chess.”

Just don’t ask him to make any grand pre­dic­tions about what will come next in his rookie sea­son.

“I feel like if I fo­cus on the future, I’m go­ing to miss some­thing right in front of me,” he said.


Ravens linebacker Jay­lon Fer­gu­son.


Ravens linebacker Jay­lon Fer­gu­son looks on be­tween plays dur­ing a pre­sea­son game against the Jaguars on Thurs­day.

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