OWINGS MILLS — In an instant, Tavares Gooden had alertly recognized the intentions of the offense and reacted properly.
It was a quick out pattern to his left as quarterback Joe Flacco fired a spiral toward wide receiver Marcus Smith, and Gooden began running toward the football as soon as Flacco cocked back his arm to throw.
That was just a case of instincts and vision kicking in for the second-year inside linebacker during the Baltimore Ravens’ full-team minicamp that concluded Sunday.
What happened next was a matter of pure acceleration and speed as Gooden exploded toward Smith, rapidly gaining ground before overtaking him in the open field.
"God gave me a good set of wheels," Gooden said. "I’m able to run with receivers, faster than receivers. It’s a blessing, man. You can’t coach speed. I don’t know when the Lord is going to take my speed. I hope I have it for my whole career."
It was a prime example of the athleticism the Ravens identified in Gooden at the University of Miami as he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 second s during a private workout prior to being drafted in the third round a year ago. That’s a better time than some starting NFL receivers.
After the majority of his rookie season was lost to hip flexor and sports hernia injuries that required surgery, Gooden is now getting the first crack at succeeding Bart Scott as the starting inside linebacker next to All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Gooden is competing with Jameel McClain for the job and holds the initial lead as he lined up with the first-team defense this weekend.
A former state champion in the discus and a standout long jumper and high jumper at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Gooden isn’t your typical oversized, bruising inside linebacker. He’s a lean athlete with striking power.
Listed at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Gooden said he has actually bulked up to 247 pounds without losing any speed.
"I see a stallion," Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "I see a guy who looks like he’s been to the Kentucky Derby that’s been tied up for a year and is bigger and stronger. He came out the first day and was like a wild horse."
For Gooden, his ability to run is unquestioned.
It’s a matter of harnessing that speed, though, and applying it to playing defense in a controlled, productive manner.
"Tavares is sometimes going too fast," Lewis said. "At a jogging pace, he wants to hit somebody like right now. So, I’ve got to calm him down."
Gooden was bound to be extra excitable at minicamp after being limited to four games last season and recording five tackles in special-teams duty before being placed on injured reserve.
Now, Gooden has a clean bill of health after essentially redshirting his rookie year.
Sidelined for a year after recording 216 career tackles in 49 games at Miami, Gooden is eager to learn and listen to advice.
"The coaches are like, ‘We know you can run, we know you can cheat,’" Gooden said. "They’re teaching me how not to cheat, so I’m in the right position and it makes it so much easier. I can sit back and flow to the play.
"The best thing is to be humble and to learn everything you can learn. As a defender, as a linebacker, your job is to get to the ball. Tackling is everything as a linebacker. I love to hit."
In Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s estimation, Gooden’s intensity and tempo is at just the right level. In theory, that kind of attitude can always be dialed down a notch or two. However, it’s impossible to switch on a dead light bulb.
"Tavares looked fast," Harbaugh said. "To me, he looked like a linebacker. He was really patient, stayed square, played downhill, stayed on the backside of the play. It wasn’t just running around like crazy. He played fast as a linebacker, which is good to see."
Gooden is hoping to thrive as Lewis’ latest protégé after bonding with him over the past year.
Gooden was Lewis’ roommate at training camp last year, wore the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year’s trademark No. 52 jersey at Miami and often spends time at Lewis’ house along with McClain for detailed film study sessions.
"Everywhere I go, I’ve been blessed to have a guy like Ray around me, a Michael Barrow, a Randy Shannon," Gooden said. "I don’t feel the pressure of filling any shoes. I’m my own guy. I play the defense so much different than every other linebacker. It’s a blessing to play with Ray."
Scott was an ultra-productive, versatile linebacker who excelled so much that he was the recipient of a six-year, $48 million contract from the New York Jets.
A major aspect of Scott’s responsibilities was taking on big fullbacks on the isolation play so Lewis could make the bulk of the tackles. He was also heavily involved in pass coverage.
Because Gooden is only listed at 235 pounds and had a history of injuries at Miami where he missed one season with a medical redshirt due to a shoulder injury, some analysts have questioned whether he’s big enough to take the punishment inside.
"Man I heard them on ESPN calling me a small linebacker," Gooden said. "I never had a problem at Miami. I’ll stick anybody in the hole. I’m almost 250 pounds.
"I wouldn’t care if I was 225 pounds, sticking is what I do. I’ll let my actions speak for me, but I made a lot of big hits in the preseason last year. I’m not going to fall off now."