When the Ravens drafted Gino Gradkowski in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in April, they thought perhaps they had found their center of the future.
With Matt Birk sidelined by back spasms, for now, at least, Gradkowski appears to be their center of the present.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Delaware product has been running with the first unit in practice in Birks absence, and is likely to do so on Thursday night when the Ravens open the preseason schedule at Atlanta.
Birks absence has been a great opportunity for me to get in there with the 1s, Gradkowski said after the open practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday. Things move a lot faster going against the first defense. Its a great challenge for me, but its definitely making me a better player.
Gradkowski added that even while sidelined, Birk, the 15-year NFL veteran, has continued to be a mentor to a player who was just 9 years old when Birk broke into the league.
Matts been a huge help along the way even though hes not out there practicing, Gradkowski said. Hes out there answering questions and talking to me every time I come off the field.
Gradkowski admitted that he got chills when I walked out of the tunnel and onto the M&T Bank Stadium field for the first time on Saturday, but said he will be ready for his first NFL action Thursday night.
I feel pretty prepared, he said. I feel good with the offense. You can never be fully prepared for your very first NFL game, so I know I wont be 100 percent ready. But I feel ready and Im very excited, and I know Matt will be right there beside me helping me out.
Birk sat out almost all of training camp last season, then proceeded to start every game for the Ravens. That scenario could play out again. But should anything happen to Birk, 36, Gradkowski is working to position himself to be the next man up.
He is very smart, he is very tough, Harbaugh said after a camp practice last week. He is very competitive, kind of a tough, mean, nasty-type of guy. We like his style."