The meal ticket? It’s Jack­son, of course

Quar­ter­back takes lead on field, at din­ner ta­ble

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Giana Han

Now that train­ing camp is com­ing to a close, the Ravens of­fen­sive line is look­ing for­ward to din­ner. Cour­tesy of quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son.

Of­fen­sive line-quar­ter­back din­ners started last sea­son with then-starter Joe Flacco, and Jack­son con­tin­ued them. The grind of train­ing camp has left lit­tle down­time for any­thing but sleep, but once the reg­u­lar sea­son starts and the sched­ule be­comes more reg­u­lar, Jack­son has told vet­eran line­man James Hurst that they’d go out again.

The line doesn’t “dis­crim­i­nate against food,” Hurst joked Tues­day, but if Jack­son is look­ing for sug­ges­tions, they re­ally like Azumi for sushi, or Clavel if they’re feel­ing like Mex­i­can.

And just like Jack­son, 22, isn’t too young to lead the Ravens in their AFC North ti­tle de­fense, he might not be too young to pick up the tab.

“Well, well, we’re go­ing to have to see,” Hurst said, chuck­ling. “Joe was a real tenured vet, so a lot of times, it was Joe’s treat. So we’re re­ally go­ing to have to talk to La­mar, you know, and just say, ‘See, we pro­tect you on Sun­day, you maybe feed us one night.’.”

When the Ravens’ sec­ond pre­sea­son game ar­rives Thurs­day against the

Green Bay Pack­ers, all eyes will be on Jack­son’s throws and his de­vel­op­ment as a passer. But the be­hind-the-scenes work Jack­son has done to es­tab­lish him­self as a leader is just as im­por­tant as his skill work.

Jack­son made his first NFL ap­pear­ance in the Ravens’ sea­son-open­ing win over the Buf­falo Bills and con­tin­ued to play over the next eight weeks as a wild-card weapon next to Flacco. In Week 11, he made his first start af­ter Flacco had hurt his hip.

Through the fi­nal weeks of the sea­son, as the Ravens chased the di­vi­sion crown, Jack­son did not face much pro­longed ad­ver­sity. There were early strug­gles against the Cincinnati Ben­gals and At­lanta Fal­cons. (He also briefly left the win over At­lanta af­ter tak­ing a hit to the head.) But he went 6-1 over­all, los­ing only to the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC’s even­tual top seed.

The Ravens’ worst game was their last, when they fell into a 20-point hole against the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers in the AFC wild-card-round game, be­fore nearly ral­ly­ing to win.

This sea­son will not be a re­peat of 2018. Now, co­or­di­na­tors around the NFL know what to ex­pect from him. And the Ravens’ top-ranked de­fense is ex­pected to drop off with the loss of vet­er­ans such as C.J. Mosley and Ter­rell Suggs.

It’s been a crit­i­cal off­sea­son for a leader to step up.

Jack­son, who coach John Har­baugh said was born for the role, is nat­u­rally slid­ing into the po­si­tion. His per­son­al­ity — de­scribed as easy­go­ing, fun, kind, un­der­stand­ing — laid the foun­da­tion for a smooth tran­si­tion into a lead­er­ship role, but Jack­son has taken ex­tra steps to help set the mood in the locker room as he be­comes its most rec­og­niz­able face.

Dur­ing the five weeks be­tween manda­tory mini­camp and train­ing camp, Jack­son got to­gether with vet­eran wide receivers Chris Moore and Wil­lie Snead IV to work out. Moore said the ses­sions were im­por­tant in help­ing Jack­son un­der­stand how each re­ceiver runs routes dif­fer­ently. Jack­son av­er­aged just over 22 pass at­tempts per game as a starter last sea­son and fin­ished with 170 over­all, 37th in the league.

“It’s just that ex­tra time we needed to build this of­fense,” Snead said July 28. “We worked some scheme. At the end of the day, it’s just grow­ing the chem­istry, build­ing the brotherhoo­d and tak­ing time with each other.”

Al­though Jack­son worked out with only the receivers, play­ers say he makes time for ev­ery­one on the ros­ter, from the top of the depth chart to the bot­tom.

“I’m one of the guys,” he ex­plained Tues­day. “I hang out. I’m cool, man.”

Tight end Hay­den Hurst, who­came into the NFL with Jack­son last year, said Jack­son sits by the tight ends and jokes around with them in the locker room. Wide re­ceiver Jaleel Scott said he also talks to the wide­outs and cheers them on through ups and downs.

“When you have a quar­ter­back that’s un­der­stand­ing and talks to you, you’d do any­thing for him,” Scott said.

Even rookie de­fen­sive tackle Day­lon Mack, part of a Texas A&M de­fense that Jack­son rushed for 226 yards against in Louisville’s 2015 Mu­sic City Bowl win, can only smile when talk­ing about Jack­son. While Mack re­mem­bers that bowl game well and jokes about it with team­mates, he didn’t ex­pect Jack­son to re­mem­ber him all these years later. But Jack­son “just came up and started a con­ver­sa­tion,” Mack said, and now they talk a lot.

Ev­ery team ex­pects its start­ing quar­ter­back to nat­u­rally guide the of­fense. But Jack­son’s re­la­tion­ship with play­ers on both sides of the ball has al­lowed him to take on a broader lead­er­ship role.

De­fen­sive play­ers no­tice the hard work he’s put in, work­ing out with the receivers and al­ways com­ing pre­pared to dive into prac­tice, de­fen­sive tackle Bran­don Williams said be­fore camp started.

“He is do­ing ev­ery­thing that a start­ing quar­ter­back is sup­posed to be do­ing,” Williams said. “I ap­pre­ci­ate him for this, and I can’t wait to see him just get out there and sling it.”

The re­spect and ca­ma­raderie he’s de­vel­oped have even helped him keep the peace. When things got heated in a seven-on­seven drill Tues­day, Jack­son placed him­self be­tween the of­fense and the de­fense — like Switzer­land, the safe, friendly, neu­tral ground.

Tight end Nick Boyle had taken a swing at safety Chuck Clark be­fore be­ing re­strained. As the sides sep­a­rated and re­turned to the drill, Jack­son turned to Boyle and gave him a pat on the hel­met.

“He gets along with ev­ery­body,” Mack said of the in­ci­dent. “Yeah, [he’s a] peace­keeper.”

The team is also re­spond­ing to Jack­son’s grow­ing con­fi­dence and comfort with the of­fense. He com­pleted over 70% of his passes Tues­day, the 15th and fi­nal prac­tice day of train­ing camp, and was es­pe­cially pre­cise in the red zone. Other than a lone in­ter­cep­tion grabbed by safety Tony Jef­fer­son, Jack­son looked ready for Thurs­day night’s game.

“I’m way ahead than I was last year,” said Jack­son, who’ll play about a quar­ter against the Pack­ers. He said he no longer has to turn to the coaches for di­rec­tion be­fore the snap.

“That con­fi­dence just ra­di­ates to the other guys in the hud­dle,” James Hurst said.

With the sea­son less than four weeks away, fans and crit­ics will be watch­ing to see whether his de­vel­op­ment holds up. But Hurst said the team knows that “this is our guy.”

The next step, Hay­den Hurst said, is get­ting him to take the tight ends out to din­ner, too.

“We’ll have to get on him,” he said with a laugh.

JULIO CORTEZ/AP

Ravens quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son has taken lead­er­ship on the team on the field and through the din­ner ta­ble.

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