Rookie LB Tavares Gooden is built for speed

Street Talk Rookie LB Tavares Gooden is built for speed

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WESTMINSTER — Shadowing Ray Rice on a flare route, Baltimore Ravens rookie linebacker Tavares Gooden chased the swift running back all over the field.

He did such a sound job of mirroring Rice that quarterback Troy Smith avoided throwing in his direction altogether.

Gooden smiled afterward and ran back to the huddle, eager for more instructions from defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and linebackers coach Greg Mattison.

It was a moment that captured why the Ravens are so enthused about their latest linebacker discovery, a third-round draft pick from the University of Miami who grew up idolizing Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

After wearing Lewis’ trademark No. 52 for the Hurricanes, now Gooden has become Lewis’ training camp roommate and eager protégé.

"I wore that number in college, and everyone would call me, ‘Baby Ray,’" Gooden said Wednesday morning. "I was trying to make those big hits and trying to live up to those linebackers that we had coming out of Miami. I think wearing the No. 52 put a lot of pressure on me to be a better player.

"Ray basically taught me about energy. Even when I’m tired, I can’t let my opponent know that I’m tired."

Regarded as a late bloomer in college as injuries, including a torn labrum in his shoulder, hampered his development before leading the team with 100 tackles as a senior, Gooden blends athleticism and intelligence.

The Ravens regard him as a potentially explosive, three-down linebacker in the future. This year, he’s slated for special teams and snaps in the dime package.

"I think he’s doing really well," Mattison said. "Tavares came here with a work ethic and he’s very prideful in making sure he does the right things and is a very coachable, outstanding player.

"I don’t think he’s intimidated because he comes from a pretty big program. I think he has a chance to be a heck of a player. One thing I’ve been most impressed with is that he asks questions and picks up things on film. He’s way ahead for a rookie."

Gooden attempted to play outside linebacker for four years before finding a home in the middle after years of coaxing Miami coach Randy Shannon to shift him there.

The experiment worked, boosting his draft stock as he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player on defense after recording just 41 tackles as a junior.

Gooden is drawing upon his Miami connections in Baltimore, seeking counsel from Lewis, safety Ed Reed and running back Willis McGahee.

"I talked to everyone from Miami," Gooden said. "It’s a brotherhood."

Lewis has offered Gooden some simple advice: run full speed to the football every time.

"If you are a 4.5 guy, then play 4.5 the whole=2 0time," Gooden said.

Gooden has always drawn strength from his late mother, Sheila Gooden. She died of a heart attack when he was age 10.

However, Gooden, 23, made a youthful mistake as a freshman. He was a member of the "Seventh Floor Crew," a collection of players who made a rap song with lyrics that were disrespectful to women. He called himself "T-Good" on the illicit recording.

Although it wasn’t meant to be leaked publicly, the song drew a harsh rebuke from university officials and women’s groups.

"It was something I shouldn’t have done, but I was young and I made a mistake," Gooden said in May. "You learn something from that. Even when you think no one is paying attention and you’re just joking around, you can’t forget that you’re supposed to be a role model.”

As an athlete, Gooden is off the charts. At St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Gooden was ranked the sixth-best linebacker in the nation by Super Prep.

He was also the state champion in the discus, ultimately choosing Miami over Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU and Tennessee.

Listed at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Gooden is compact and muscular, but not overly big for his position. He claims to weigh 245 pounds, but appears smaller.

Gooden has run the 40-yard dash in the high 4.4s and has a 39-inch vertical leap.

"Tavares has a lot of energy," Lewis said in May. "He’s really in that Miami mold.”

The Ravens conducted a private w orkout for Gooden shortly before the draft and were thrilled they were able to acquire him eight picks into the third round.

"He can really run," Mattison said. "If a guy can run and has great effort, then he understands what’s expected of him as a Raven. You always want to wait until the pads come on, but everything he’s done up to now, I’ve been very happy with him."

Gooden is operating as Bart Scott’s backup at inside linebacker. Since both Lewis and Scott are in contract years and it’s an unlikely scenario that both would be retained after this season, Gooden could emerge as a top candidate to start next season.

"This is a defense built on speed, running to the ball and being physical," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We felt, coming out of Miami, that he was all those things. We think he’s a good fit."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital

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Aaron Wilson

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best Sports News Story for the state of Maryland in voting conducted by the Associated Press managing editors. 

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