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Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley Locked In 'Great Battle'


Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley both hail from Pittsburgh. Gradkowski is two-and-a-half years younger, and kept tabs on Shipley's progress from a big-time high school recruit, to Penn State, to the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.

Occasionally, the two will reminisce about home, and different spots they liked to frequent. But those conversations don't last too long.

The two are now, in a way, pitted against each other in one of the best battles at Ravens training camp. The both badly want to be Baltimore's next starting center.

"It's just a good, friendly conversation," Shipley said. "But when we're on the field, we can't worry about anything but playing football. Let the best man win."

After Matt Birk retired following the Super Bowl, it looked as if his understudy and last year's fourth-round pick, Gradkowski, was inked in as the new starter. Then the Ravens traded for Shipley on May 9. It added a challenger, but pundits felt it was mostly a depth move.

Since then, Shipley has made it a full-on battle. While Gradkowski took almost all of the first-team snaps during Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and minicamp, the snaps with the starters in training camp are being split. Shipley has spent a lot of time snapping to quarterback Joe Flacco in training camp.

"They're both playing really well right now," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "They're both very similar. They're very athletic. They're very quick. They're very smart centers. They've [both] gotten us in the right protection. They've gotten the run calls made correctly. ... So it's going to be a great battle."

Gradkowski, the younger brother of longtime backup NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, has been waiting since his childhood to become a starter in the league.

"It's definitely something that's on my mind every day," Gradkowski said. "It's something I'm very passionate about. I really want to win this job."

Shipley, a former seventh-round pick, has waited for his chance too. He bounced from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Indianapolis Colts early in his career, then finally got an opportunity last year with the Colts due to injuries. He excelled on the field, yet was still considered expendable by his team.

"I don't really think of it as the best battle," Shipley said. "It's the best opportunity. I'm just going to go out and do me, and hopefully my best wins me the job."

It's an essential position in the Ravens offense, and one that is perhaps being overlooked amidst the turnover at wide receiver. Birk held the position down so solidly in Baltimore, that it hasn't been a concern for a long time.

The center has to understand not only their offense, but defensive schemes as well – just like a quarterback. They have to relay adjustments to their teammates along the offensive line, often in loud road environments – just like a quarterback.

"The center's job is not only to take care of his assignment from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint. He is like the quarterback in the line," Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell said.

"He has to be able to certainly get everybody going in the right direction, making the proper adjustments, identifying those that should be identified. … Joe has been around and knows the system, so he can help a lot in that regard. But nevertheless, that part of it – the mental part of the game for a center – is difficult."

Seeing how that all works in the preseason games, beginning Thursday night in Tampa Bay, will be critical in determining who the starter will be. The two players could split series, or halves, as the Ravens' other center, sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen, is injured.

The competition has made both players better, Gradkowski says. So has been facing the Ravens' stout defensive line. Both players have been routinely matched up against Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata.

Now it's time to see what they do against somebody else.

"I can't wait," Gradkowski said. "I think I just have to keep playing the way I'm practicing. The most important thing is to make sure I'm going as strong as I can, and that I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and know I did my best."

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