OWINGS MILLS — Barreling past the line of scrimmage with a quick first step, Courtney Upshaw powerfully shoved aside a blocker and tagged quarterback John Brantley for a sack.
And the former Alabama consensus All-American darted into the backfield regularly on Sunday, manhandling rookie offensive linemen.
Virtually everything the Baltimore Ravens’ prize outside linebacker did during his first taste of the NFL at a rookie minicamp, especially moving forward, looked aggressive, decisive and athletic.
And Upshaw has already learned one lesson while making his bid to take over injured Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ rush outside linebacker spot after the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year partially tore his Achilles tendon.
“Speaking on Suggs, there is only one Suggs,” said Upshaw, the Ravens’ second-round draft pick. “You can’t replace Suggs. Everybody has to come in as a team. I know the veteran leadership on this team is not going to allow slack on my part or anybody else. Everybody needs to step up.”
Manufacturing Suggs’ 70 tackles, 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles from last season may not be a reachable goal, at least not individually.
However, Upshaw represents the Ravens’ best hope of approaching Suggs’ relentless style of play. At 6-foot-2, 272 pounds, Upshaw is strong, tough and mobile.
Based on what Upshaw displayed during his first three days in the NFL, the Ravens are encouraged.
“I’d say a very positive impression Courtney made,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He is really sharp, really knows football. He does all the things that you might not expect a bigger guy to do. He does those things well. He gets into coverage well. He’s just a quick learner. He’s off to a good start."
When asked to flip his hips and drop into pass coverage and play in reverse, Upshaw wasn’t nearly as comfortable or well-practiced. That wasn’t unexpected.
The Ravens’ top draft pick didn’t embarrass himself, though, diving to break up a pass in traffic and appearing to be picking up the nuances of pass coverage after primarily rushing the passer in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference.
“That’s something that I have to get more used to, being a drop linebacker,” Upshaw said. “Everybody knows I can pass rush, and I did that a lot at Alabama. I am very prepared and capable of doing so, learning the terminology. Once I get everything down, I’ll be ready to go.”
Working toward that goal, Upshaw said that he plans on dropping some weight.
Taking the majority of the snaps at outside linebacker and retreating into coverage often, Upshaw was bending at the waist and noticeably tired by the end of a three-day whirlwind of practices and absorbing a more intricate defensive playbook. The coaching staff pushed the rookies hard to get them acclimated to the faster tempo of the NFL.
“I definitely will be going down,” Upshaw said. “Just getting myself prepared is the reason why I want to get down to be ready condition-wise and in shape for when the veterans get in and be able to make a starting job, and just going out, competing and doing what I do best: play football.”
Drafted 35th overall, Upshaw had 9 1/2 sacks and 18 tackles for losses last season and 17 1/2 for his career for the Crimson Tide.
Now, the Ravens will need instant production from Upshaw and other players. He won’t be alone in trying to replace Suggs’ workload.
There’s also the possibility that Upshaw could line up at strongside linebacker, a vacancy created when veteran Jarret Johnson signed a $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers. That’s also the spot where Kruger is regarded as the favorite to wind up starting.
"We’ll have guys that can step in, but Courtney is a great answer," Harbaugh said. "But he has to earn that. We’ve got some other guys that are competing, too. Paul Kruger is going to be a big part of that. Sergio Kindle is going to be a big part of that. Albert McClellan is in the mix there."
Upshaw made a fast impression on his new teammates, chasing down running backs and harassing quarterbacks.
He set himself apart a bit from the other rookies.
“He’s a big dude,” rookie running back Bernard Pierce said. “I heard the hype about him, but he’s huge. He’s strong as ever, too.
“I saw a couple of clips of him during practice while we were down here and he’s a real powerful guy and he’s faster than he looks. He’s definitely going to make an impact on this team.”
"He’s on top of it, he’s focused," offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said. "He’s very specific and very detailed."
Upshaw learned of Suggs’ injury via Twitter where he was overwhelmed with messages imploring him to be up to the task of replacing five-time Pro Bowl selection. At first, Upshaw thought it wasn’t true.
“I woke up one morning and somebody wrote me on Twitter. I really didn’t believe until my agent texted me. I got a bunch of calls and then on Twitter, everybody is saying, ‘You have to step up,’ and everything like that."
Upshaw wasn’t fazed by the attention, handling it in stride.
He had already set his mind toward the task at hand.
"I wrote that it’s a grown man’s game and everybody has to come in and be prepared even if Suggs was healthy," Upshaw said. "I have to be prepared either way. Honestly, I got the goal and the mindset to come in and compete. That’s my No. 1 goal. If I am able to get on the field and make plays, that’s what I want to do."