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WESTMINSTER — The football hadn’t even been launched into the air by quarterback Kyle Boller, and Haruki Nakamura was already ready to strike.
The Baltimore Ravens’ instinctive rookie safety crouched in an athletic stance as he retreated in the secondary. His eyes were constantly zeroed in on Boller and the receivers’ patterns.
Before Boller released the football, Nakamura had read his eyes and his intentions. Rapidly covering ground, Nakamura sprinted to the hash mark to intercept a surprised Boller.
It was a familiar sequence for Nakamura, who has intercepted roughly 10 passes during the past six days of training camp.
"It’s a game you play with your skills, but you also you need to play with your mind," Nakamura said. "Once you get things down, you run around and play football like youâ€™re a little kid again.
"You use your instincts and communicate so you know what’s happening around you. The quarterbacks have strong arms. If you have a slip in your break, you’re not going to get to the ball. You have to be very precise."
The sixth-round draft pick from Cincinnati has been so impressive that he has lined up with the first-string defense alongside strong safety Dawan Landry ahead of veteran Jim Leonhard and third-round pick Tom Zbikowski. Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Nakamura has been the surprise of camp, parlaying his anticipation and quickness into a legitimate bid for a roster spot and a future in Baltimore.
"He’s like a magnet with the ball," secondary coach Chuck Pagano said. "He’s done a great job of learning the defense, and he’s very, very instinctive. He’s an effort guy.
â€œHe makes a ton of plays. He’s versatile. He can play down in the box or back deep. You’ve seen the way he can play the ball. His nickname is â€˜Johnny on the spot.â€™â€
Nakamura finds inspiration in his mother, Karen, a single parent and a fourth-degree black belt, and from the memory of his father, Ryozo.
Ryozo died of lung cancer 17 years ago when Nakamura was five years old. A native of Japan, he was an eighth-degree black belt in judo who traveled to the United States to work with the U.S. national judo team.
Nakamura and his older brothers, Yoshi and Mako, became national judo champions.
"My dad was a proud person, and the way he taught judo he wanted us to be the best, the best at anything we ever did," Nakamura said. "We’ve always been a hard-working family."
Football was a sport Ryozo Nakamura never wanted his sons to pursue. He wanted them to concentrate on judo, but Nakamura couldn’t resist the urge after his brother sneaked him down to a local recreation center to sign up for football in eighth grade.
â€œMy family is so strict and it was all about judo and any other sport was forbidden, especially football because it was so violent,â€ Nakamura said. â€œMy brother thought my personality would be a great fit for it and it certainly was.â€
Martial arts have given Nakamura a boost in football, increasing his flexibility and ability to deliver a blow.
"As a defensive back, it gives you good hips," he said. "In judo, it’s a lot of hip turns and hip explosion. I think it really helps my explosiveness and my quickness.
"It goes hand in hand. I don’t know what it is about hitting, but I just love to hit."
The Ravens are hoping Nakamura is another sleeper akin to free agents discoveries Bart Scott or Will Demps or a late-round steal like Adalius Thomas.
A studious Cleveland native, Nakamura graduated in three years with a major in criminal justice and a minor in communications.
Lightly recruited out of St. Edward High School, his only big scholarship offer was from Cincinnati. He was once Ravens quarterback Troy Smith’s backup in high school.
He wound up being a three-year starter with 237 career tackles, seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
â€œHe plays fast,â€ Pagano said. "He flies around."
As a senior, Nakamura was named All-Big East Conference as he registered a career-high 95 tackles and four interceptions.
"I don’t know how many interceptions Haruki has got, but the ball finds him," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "It’s funny, but the same guys are always getting lucky. He looks kind of like Will Demps, but faster."
Nakamura has always been an underdog, underestimated by recruiters and many scouts.
At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, he is smaller than most safeties. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, but only after an initial 4.6 clocking.
"I was always one of those guys who people said was too small, too slow or wasn’t aggressive enough," Nakamura said. "It fuels me inside."
As does the pride he takes in his Japanese heritage. There haven’t been many Asian players in the NFL other than former offensive lineman Eugene Chung and Demps, who is half-Korean.
"It’s kind of special, it’s unique to be a representative of a group," Nakamura said. "It actually means a lot to me.â€
As Nakamura strives to make the Ravens’ roster, he’s intent on following his mother’s example of drive and patience.
"I get my goal-driven attitude from my mother," Nakamura said. "She’s a very dedicated person.â€
Nakamura also inherited a sense of humor from his family.
Prior to playing against Rutgers and future Ravens rookie running back Ray Rice, his brother had a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: "Nakamura Eats Rice."
Nakamura wound up tackling Rice on a key fourth down.
"Being Japanese, we eat rice," Nakamura said. "We’ve joked about it a couple of times."
Nakamura was willing to sign with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent if he hadn’t been drafted. He took pre-draft visits to the Browns, Bengals, Bears and the Ravens, preferring Baltimore.
The Ravens didn’t want to miss out on Nakamura, landing a rookie who takes nothing for granted.
"He’s definitely got a chip on his shoulder," Pagano said. "He understands that being here is a privilege, not a right. He plays every snap, every day like it could be his last one. Weâ€™re thrilled with him so far.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.