When Justin Madubuike was born in Texas, the doctor raised the 10-pounder up and said, "We've got a football player right here."
From birth, everyone around Madubuike has known he was destined for greatness. As he enters his second year, the hype surrounding the Ravens' 23-year-old defensive tackle is more deafening than an infant's cry.
Veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, a six-time Pro Bowler, told Madubuike at practice the other day that he "has a chance to be a very special player in this league." Center Bradley Bozeman said Madubuike is "one of the harder people I've ever had to move on defense." Veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe called him a "monster," saying he expects the youngster to develop into an All-Pro.
On Friday, it was his coach's turn to rave. New Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Anthony Weaver, a man who played four seasons in Baltimore as a former second-round pick, said Madubuike's "upside is limitless."
"He has all the talent in the world," Weaver said. "He has got burst, speed, strength; he can bend. For him, it's just a matter of catching up his football intelligence with his athletic ability. Once it clicks for him, it could be really special to watch. I'm just happy to be here and help mentor him."
The Ravens drafted Madubuike in the third round last year out of Texas A&M. He left school early following his junior year, in which he notched 5.5 sacks for a second straight season. Had he stayed in college for one more year, Madubuike could have been a first-round pick. Instead, Baltimore got what looks to be a steal.
First the difficulties of learning the NFL during a pandemic, then a knee injury suffered in training camp, slowed Madubuike's growth last year. He missed the first four games, then went on the COVID-19 list midway through the season, knocking him out of two more contests.
But when he was on the field, Madubuike made his presence felt. He was on a tear down the stretch, notching three starts, 16 tackles and a sack over the final seven games. He registered his first career sack in Week 15 against the New York Giants when he ripped by the guard, then the double team was too late to stop him.
"If you were going to draw up who you wanted in a three-technique, that's how you'd draw them up," Wolfe said. "His explosiveness, his strength, his bend – he's the full package, man. … And he's a smart kid too, so he'll pick it up quick. I love what I'm seeing from him."
So how does Madubuike feel about all the praise coming his way? Does he feel any pressure?
"I hear what people are saying, but I kind of just don't let it get to me too much," he said. "I just kind of ask myself, 'What can you control?' Just your attitude, your effort and the hours of sleep that you get at night – you know what I mean? That's all that you can control, really. So, I just try to focus on those things, and I believe that if I maximize those things, the rest will take care of itself."
Madubuike is the young buck in the Ravens' defensive line room. Campbell is 34, Brandon Williams is 32 and Wolfe is 31. They are still Baltimore's leading trio up front, but Madubuike will see his role expand and take some reps off the veterans' plates, helping to keep them fresher.
The biggest benefit of having so much experience in the room is the coaching Madubuike gets every day. Campbell has been in Madubuike's ear since Day 1 in Baltimore.
"It's definitely a blessing to have those guys who have a lot of wisdom that they can pour into you to better your game," Madubuike said.
"I feel like I just bring more experience now since I have one year in the League under my shoulders. So, now I know what to expect, the expectations for the older guys and just kind of the ins and outs of developing as a pro."
Now the only question is what the veterans will settle on for his nickname. Most call him "Madubeeks" but Wolfe likes "Madubeast."
Whichever way they go, there's no doubt that the Ravens expect Madubuike to become a household name in the not-too-distant future.
"Once he really understands how good he is and he really grasps that, he's going to be dangerous," Wolfe said.