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January 11, 2011

Harper learning and staying patient while on Baltimore's practice squad

By: Jimmy Robertson

Photo courtesy of Phil Hoffman/Baltimore RavensJustin Harper, who played three games for the Ravens in 2009, hopes his future is still with the organization after three years mostly on the practice squad.

For a guy who’s played in just three games in his three-year professional career and who basically works in a scout-team role, Justin Harper sounds about as happy as a person can possibly be.

“I love it here,” Harper said. “Just getting drafted was a blessing, and I love this organization.”

Harper, a former wide receiver at Virginia Tech, works on the practice squad of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Ravens, as part of a Tech draft contingent that included offensive lineman Duane Brown, receiver Eddie Royal, receiver Josh Morgan, linebacker Xavier Adibi and others.

Ravens officials saw him as more of a developmental project, so they placed him on the practice squad during his rookie season. He stayed on the practice squad for much of last season as well, but toward the end of the year, injuries at the receiver position created an opportunity and Ravens coaches put him on the active roster. Harper played in three games, and though he didn’t catch any passes, he made his contributions in other areas.

“I had a couple of blocks that led to touchdowns,” he said. “I loved it. I loved being out there and playing. God really blessed me to get that experience and I tried to make the most of it.

“That’s what you have to do when you’re on the practice squad. When guys go down, they [the coaches] look to you to be ready.”

As a practice squad player, Harper does basically everything the other players do, perhaps even more. He only gets paid less – practice squad players make an average of $5,200 a week, or $88,400 per season (some make more, depending on the team).

The rest of the job, though, resembles that of his teammates. He sits in all the position meetings and studies opponents’ defenses. But he also watches film of the other team’s best receiver because, as a practice squad player, he emulates that receiver in practice, with the goal being to prepare his team’s defensive players for what they may see on the field on Sundays.

“I do everything the guys do,” he said. “I’m sitting in all the meetings and I try to give our defense the best look possible. I take a lot of pride in that. Then I’ll also get some reps with our offense.

“I’m the only practice squad player who travels with our team, and I think that shows that they [the coaches] do like me. I do what they ask, and it’s a privilege that they ask me to travel with them.”

When Harper goes on road trips with the team, he’s not just a fan kicking it with the players. On the contrary, he takes advantage of that time to learn, too.

“I watch those guys and see how they prepare for a game,” he said. “I’m watching Anquan Boldin all the time to see what he’s doing and how he’s focusing on what needs to be done.

“I even warm up with the team, even though I’m not going to be playing. I watch those receivers as they’re warming up and then stand on the sidelines during the game. It’s all about learning and being prepared for when your time comes. My time is coming.”

His time may come next season. NFL rules allow players to stay on the practice squad for just three seasons. After that point, the team must keep the player on the active roster or else the player becomes a free agent, thus free to sign with any other NFL team.

Harper feels confident his future is with the Ravens.

“My goal next season will be to come in and make the 53-man roster,” he said. “They’ve kept me around for a reason, so I need to come in, compete and show them that I can play in this league.

“I love the organization here and I love Ozzie [Newsome, Baltimore’s GM] and Coach [John] Harbaugh and [Cam] Cameron [Baltimore’s offensive coordinator]. My time isn’t right now, and if you think about it, this is how my time went at Virginia Tech. It really didn’t happen for me until my fourth year. I think my freshman year I caught maybe five passes, and then my sophomore year, I caught 10 or 15 [actually 16], and my junior year, I caught around 20 or so [21]. Then my senior year, I was one of the leading receivers [41 catches]. So my opportunity is going to come. It’s just a matter of time.”

Harper loves the Baltimore organization and he loves the players, a close-knit bunch that reminds him of his days at Tech. He spends a lot of time hanging with Derrick Mason, a longtime NFL receiver who has shown Harper the ropes, and also Marcus Smith, another receiver whom Harper considers one of his best friends.

He also spends a lot of time with Ed Reed, the Ravens’ safety and one of the NFL’s best ever. Most of his conversations with Reed center on the Hokies’ recent domination of Reed’s alma mater – the University of Miami.

“We’ve beaten them, what, three of the past four seasons now?” Harper said. “I wear my Virginia Tech hat all the time. All the guys hear about it. My locker is four lockers down from Ray Lewis’ and he hears from me, too.

“They’re all great guys, though. Just great guys to be around. It really reminds me of my Virginia Tech days. They’re great players, too, so I’m getting better every day just going against guys like Ray and Ed. When you have that opportunity, why not take advantage of it?”

Harper maintains contact with his former Tech teammates, and several of them plan to come to Blacksburg to work out over the summer. He also keeps in contact with a few of the current members of Tech’s squad whom he knows.

“I always make sure to stop by and see all those guys whenever I can,” he said. “I’m never going to leave my Hokie family.”