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WESTMINSTER — Haloti Ngata dug his cleats into the grass, hurting the ground with each stomp as he began accelerating toward the line of scrimmage.
The Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line wasn’t ready for the impending violent impact, or the bizarre sight of a 6-foot-4, 340-pound defensive tackle lining up at middle linebacker and collapsing the pocket on a blitz.
It was an imaginative call by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, and a display of Ngata’s raw power and athleticism. Although the linebackers made fun of his unfamiliarity at not lining up with his hand in the dirt, they took notice of his unique mobility.
"It’s a lot of fun," Ngata said. "It’s Rex playing around with us. I don’t think we’re ever going to use it, but we’re just having fun in training camp and he knows that I like to play around a lot."
As Ngata heads into his second season, there are a few subtle changes afoot with the Ravens’ second-year lineman. One year after being drafted in the first round with the 13th overall pick and starting every contest, the former Oregon star’s comfort level has increased.
Ngata is even smiling and joking after a rookie campaign where a silent intensity defined his approach. It’s a sign of his rapid development after registering 51 tackles, one sack and an interception to garner all-rookie notice from several publications.
There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling on Ngata’s potential. Not with his rare strength, size and agility.
"I think he should be All-Pro by Year III, if not sooner," said defensive end Trevor Pryce, a four-time Pro Bowl selection. "He’s gotten so much better and, like me, so much more comfortable with what’s going on around him. Now he can kind of joke and he talks a little bit more. Last year, he barely said three words to anybody.
"That wasn’t because he was a rookie. Nobody was going to mess with him because he was bigger than everybody else. That was more about, ‘I really don’t know what’s what and which way is up.’ Now, he does. You can tell in the way he plays. He’s constantly smiling."
Ngata’s primary duty last season was keeping blockers away from the linebackers with all four earning Pro Bowl distinction for the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Ngata flashed brute force during the second day of training camp when he bull-rushed offensive guard Chris Chester backward as if he were wearing roller skates. A few minutes later, he nimbly stepped past first-round offensive guard Ben Grubbs with an inside rip move during a pass-rush drill.
"Haloti is just a beast out there," Grubbs said. "You look at him and you think he’s slow, but he’s swift on his feet."
One year ago, Ngata had a brief holdout before reporting to training camp. Now, he’s here from the first day and unencumbered by a knee sprain that stalled his early-season development last year.
"This year, it feels more relaxing just knowing the plays," Ngata said. "Dawan Landry and I were talking about how happy we are with knowing the plays and knowing what to do and knowing the guys around us.
"It’s not easier, but it’s more easy for us to do the things we want to do. We can focus on our technique instead of worrying about the plays."
Playing on a 13-3 division champion seemed to help Ngata avoid the chronic fatigue that typically hampers rookies as they adjust to a 16-game regular season.
"I didn’t really feel like I hit the rookie wall, because they had me moving around a lot in practice," Ngata said. "Plus, we were winning. I had a lot of fun last year."
Ngata has been tutored by nose guard Kelly Gregg, a savvy veteran who lacks Ngata’s size, but has outstanding leverage and more tackles than any NFL interior lineman over the past five seasons.
"I couldn’t have a better role model," Ngata said.
Ngata made strides during the second half of the season, registering his first career sack in a December victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then, he recorded a career-high seven tackles in a January playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
"He understands so much better what the team is about and what his obligations are," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He got better and better as the season went on. He was a huge presence for us last year as the season finished up, and, equally so, he’s having a great camp so far."
Ngata intercepted a deflected pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season-opener, rumbling 60 yards before collapsing in exhaustion at the Buccaneers’ 9-yard line.
It’s still Ngata’s most memorable moment of his NFL career.
"Everybody is still teasing me about it, all the fans saying, ‘Next time, score,’" Ngata said. "If they had big legs like mine, they would realize that you cramp up. Next time, I’ll just fall over or something."
NOTE: Kicker Rhys Lloyd hasn’t reported to camp, stalling his bid to be a kickoff specialist after a summer in NFL Europe. Lloyd hasn’t been able to return to the United States due to visa issues. Billick said that the team is hopeful Lloyd could show up in Westminster soon.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.