There's a scene in the book (and the movie) Blindside where Michael Oher, the big, hulking 300-plus pound high school kid from the streets of Tennessee, defies conventional wisdom (and gravity) by showing off his deft footwork and nifty moves on the basketball court. Those quick moves came in handy when Oher - currently the Baltimore Ravens' left tackle -- had to block those speedy defensive ends on Friday nights.
Now, basketball didn't make Oher into an NFL-caliber lineman. But it certainly didn't hurt.
"I encourage my kids, especially my linemen, to keep playing basketball," said Maurice J. McDonough coach Luke Ethington. "Basketball is good not just for conditioning, but for the development of athletic skills like good feet, soft hands and finesse."
Ethington has one lineman in particular who could very well be the next Oher. At 6-feet-7 and 330 pounds, rising senior Jamal Price is one of those rare mammoth-men who can move like a point guard and finish like Shaq underneath. Thanks to years of training on the hardwood, Price might have some of the best footwork of any lineman in Maryland.
"Obviously I'm pretty big, and people don't think I can move," Price said. "So during games [pass rushers] will try to beat me with their speed. They pay the price."
Indeed they do. Price had the blindside covered tighter than the lid on a pickle jar last year. He allowed just two sacks in almost 200 pass plays. And almost all of that success can be attributed to his footwork.
In that sense, Price is unique. Most high school linemen struggle with pass blocking, mostly because high schools run the ball much more than they throw.
McDonough is no exception. Yet Price continues to excel.
"His pass blocking technique is really strong," Ethington said. "He gets his pads down, he has good hand placement - his hands are as big as dinner plates - his wingspan is as long as a minivan and he has those quick feet. He's held his own against some stiff competition."
Price handled sack masters likes Josh Alexander (New Mexico) of Westlake, Josh Thorne of Potomac and even Jerome June (Morgan State), a gifted speed rusher from Gwynn Park. At showcases and camps he's gone one-on-one with defensive ends from DeMatha and Good Counsel, proving he could handle the elite.
"I'm not afraid of stiff competition," Price said.
Price's best game, however, came against Dave Luppino and the rest of Huntingtown's disruptive defensive line. The Hurricanes didn't have any colossal pass rushers, but they were particularly quick and adept at beating slower big men. Still, they couldn't get by Price.
"Before the Huntingtown game my coaches were telling me this would be a real challenge," Price said. "I worked my tail off all week and had my best game all season. Their defensive end was pancaked pretty much every three plays. I physically annihilated him."
Such success wasn't always so for Price. Earlier in his career he developed the dreaded "lazy streak" reputation that's been the bane of interior lineman (see current Ravens: Jared Gaither and Terrence Cody). His weight fluctuated to over 350 pounds - and it wasn't muscle. While Price never skipped out on workouts, Ethington still felt he didn't always give 100 percent. Thus, Price hasn't become a truly dominant lineman.
But this offseason Ethington has seen a change in his blindside tackle.
"He's put together a strong work ethic and it has taken hold this offseason," Ethington said. "He's been with [strength coach] Joe Haden, he's in the weight room constantly and he doesn't complain at all. I mean, we push him hard and he responds."
Price said he has one, single focus this offseason: Greatness. He's stopped all other extra curricular activities, including basketball, in favor of football training. Physically, he's dropped 15 pounds of fat while increasing his squat and bench-press numbers. On the field he's been honing his technique, including his drop step, which he says still needs work.
"I want to be known as one of those players who never quits," Price said. "I have a lot of determination this offseason."
Price should channel most of that determination into run blocking, an area that's lagged behind his pass blocking. That's slightly ironic considering run blocking is all about power, and at 330 pounds Price shouldn't be lacking in that area. But Price is still developing his upper-body strength. Plus, he still has a tendency to ease up on his blocks, according to Ethington.
"We want him to really use his physical skills to impose his will and shove some bodies into the ground," Ethington said. "We want him to finish blocks to the echo of the whistle."
But that's hardly Price's most pressing need. While he's feverishly devoted to improving his game, he must be equally committed in the classroom, according to Ethington.
Price currently has a low core GPA and is in danger of not qualifying for fall sports (he missed sophomore year football for this reason). Worse, it's severely damaged his college recruiting interest. Division I schools from up and down the East Coast have come through McDonough, but they're not about to take a chance on a guy who won't pass the NCAA Clearinghouse standards.
"I understand why colleges don't want to commit to me," Price said. "I realize there's hard work that needs to be done, and I'm doing that now. Before I did just enough to get by, but now I'm making up for it with extra classes, summer school, retaking classes that I didn't pass. I'm confident I'm going to qualify."
Ethington, who doesn't sugarcoat much, isn't so sure. Price may be eligible for high school football, but the future is hazy as far as college goes.
"It's going to come down to the eleventh hour," Ethington said. "We want him to give the same effort in the classroom that he does on the field."
If Price does qualify, he won't have any trouble landing a scholarship offer. Both North Carolina and Rutgers were apparently close to offering before they found out about his grades.
Price, for his part, has been to Rutgers. He certainly wouldn't mind spending the next four years in Piscataway if they'll give him a chance.
"When I went up to Rutgers I got to see Anthony Davis (49ers) practice," Price said. "We're similar players, and the coaches were telling me he came in as a freshman with some question marks. That's just like me. And looks what [Davis] was able to do in four years -- he's in the NFL now.
"I think I could do the same thing."
We'll find out this fall.