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OWINGS MILLS — In an ironic twist, the least celebrated among the Baltimore Ravens’ trio of promising rookie offensive linemen might wind up starting Monday night’s season opener.
If All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden is unavailable against the Cincinnati Bengals because of a nagging hyperextended left big toe, then Marshal Yanda would complete his journey from Iowa farmboy to first-time NFL starter in his regular-season debut.
Yanda would start at right tackle with Adam Terry shifting over to his natural left tackle position in place of Ogden. A former second-team All-Big Ten Conference blocker, Yanda heads into this game with measured confidence.
"I’m getting more comfortable," said Yanda, a third-round draft pick out of Iowa.
"I’m still a young guy. I still have a long ways to go. I still have a lot of corrections I need to make for myself on fundamentals, techniques and also the playbook.
"There’s a lot of stuff you think you have a good feel for. Then, they throw a different defense at you and you’re kind of like, ‘I guess I didn’t know it as well as I thought.’ This is pretty exciting."
For Yanda, this represents a unique test.
It’s one that comes after watching rookie tackle Jared Gaither, the team’s massive supplemental draft prize, and first-round guard Ben Grubbs garner most of the attention throughout the preseason.
Gaither started three games at left tackle with Yanda not getting his first call to start until the preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons last Friday night at the Georgia Dome. Yanda drew solid reviews, and is poised to remain in the lineup depending on what transpires with Ogden’s high-profile toe injury.
Plus, playing right tackle feels like home.
"Yeah, I feel more comfortable over there," Yanda said. "It shows up in practice. I can move a lot out of my stance, I don’t know why.
"That’s just the way it goes right now. I’m just trying to learn every day and pick up stuff and listen to the coaches."
An imposing, tattooed native of Animosa, Iowa — population 5,552 — Yanda is accustomed to waiting his turn.
When he didn’t qualify academically after a decorated prep career as a standout two-way lineman who threw the discus, shot put and lettered three times in basketball, Yanda enrolled at North Iowa Community College in Mason City.
Two years later, he emerged as an all-region selection and an honorable-mention All-American who received one of the Hawkeyes’ last football scholarships. Eight months after transferring to Iowa, he was the starting right tackle learning under the tutelage of former Ravens offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz.
"I’ve always had to be patient," said Yanda, who started 25 games at Iowa, including four at left guard, five at left tackle and 16 at right tackle, earning the team’s Hawkeye Hustle award with 81 knockdowns and 11 touchdown-clearing blocks two years ago. "I took a different path, but I’m here. I owe a lot to coach Ferentz, who taught me pretty much everything I know."
The Ravens drafted Yanda with the 86th overall pick after swapping their fourth-round pick (106th overall) and the 161th and 203rd overall picks to land him in the third round. They immediately identified him as one of their "red-star" prospects that are prized for their passion, character, intelligence and toughness.
"This is a very tough kid, very smart," offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "We’re very happy with how Marshal has been developing. He’s a hard worker who’s eager to learn."
That work ethic was ingrained in Yanda during his blue-collar childhood.
Yanda grew up on his parents’ dairy farm, rising daily at 6 a.m. for chores along with his sister. The farm is concentrated now on grain production and raising pigs.
"I’ve always worked hard," Yanda said. "That’s pretty much a family birthright."
The Ravens have seen a lot of grit in Yanda. Especially colorful linebacker Bart Scott, who praised the rookie’s â€˜farm boy street cred’ after Yanda blocked him during training camp.
"Marshal is a pretty easygoing guy off the field, but he radiates swagger on the field," right offensive guard Chris Chester said. "He’s done really well and is going to be a very good player. I think he would do fine if we need him to start this game."
Although Yanda played in a lot of big games in college, including the Alama Bowl last year against the Texas Longhorns, this is a nationally televised contest that will go a long way toward defining his initial NFL reputation if he’s in the lineup.
"It’s pretty sweet," Yanda said. "I’m very excited to even be there. That’s a great opportunity for all of us. As long as we’re on the same page, it should go very well."
At 6-foot, 3 and 310 pounds, Yanda isn’t the prototype for a right tackle, but he makes up for his lack of ideal size with technique and toughness.
Now, he’s preparing to take his hard-nosed approach into an actual NFL game as the Ravens’ insurance policy.
"I just want to show everybody that I can be counted on and trusted to do my job," Yanda said. "That I won’t hurt the team and that I can contribute and help and do my part."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.