Looking across the Ravens' locker room, it might be hard for some to take Ray Rice as a legitimate NFL football player.
Standing at 5-foot-8 and 205 pounds, with nary any facial scruff and a youthful smile regularly spread across his face, he has the nature of someone much younger than his 21 years suggest.
True, he may be a rookie, but after solid production in 12 NFL games, Rice has shown that he is definitely one of the big boys.
Rice demonstrated early that he can be the playmaker the Ravens envisioned when they drafted him in the second round (55th overall) out of Rutgers.
"He's rough, tough and loves to play football," says head coach John Harbaugh. "He's a playmaker - and not just a one-play playmaker - but he's a durable playmaker. He's done it for a long time. He had a lot of carries at Rutgers, and he's proven."
Rice proved it setting all sorts of rushing records in only three years as a Scarlet Knight.
He was the first player in school history to top 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. He set Rutgers career marks with 4,926 yards on 910 attempts (5.4-yard average per carry) and 49 rushing touchdowns. And, he even closed out his final campaign with eight straight 100-yard performances.
Rice continued that production as a runner for Baltimore - he's currently third on the team with 104 carries for 423 yards - and even broke out for 154 yards in Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns.
But in a slight change from his collegiate output, Rice has been a heavy participant in the Ravens' aerial attack. He always knew he had the talent to be a pass-catcher; he just needed opportunities.
"I feel like I've been developing, considering that I came from being mostly a runner," Rice says. "I think I'm catching the ball well, getting chances in our offense. It feels good being multi-dimensional. It's something that I like doing and something I want to continue to do."
Rice's 27 receptions are second only to Derrick Mason's
56, while his 264 yards are fourth.
He has been a critical weapon, especially when hauling in screen passes, which the Ravens have employed with success against the phalanx of talented pass-rushing opponents Baltimore has faced this year.
"I'm not surprised," admits quarterback Joe Flacco about his fellow rookie. "We've known what Ray is and what Ray is going to be. We've known that from the summer. He gets in there and he shows the quickness, and he has the ability to make the first guy miss. That has been huge for us."
Rice chuckles when asked about what would really round out his game - a touchdown.
His 687 all-purpose yards are the most of any player in the NFL that has not reached the end zone.
The closest he came was in Week 8, when the Oakland Raiders came to M&T Bank Stadium. Late in the fourth quarter, Rice took a handoff in the red zone and barreled 7 yards to paydirt, but his celebration was halted when left tackle Jared Gaither was penalized as an illegal downfield blocker.
On the next play, Flacco had the option to give to Rice up the middle, but instead kept it himself and sprinted right for a 12-yard touchdown.
"We laughed about that," Rice says with a smile. "It's a funny feeling. You know, you want a touchdown, but that wasn't Joe's fault. But as long as it got in, then that's what matters. It's a team effort. As long as he got in, I was fine with it."
The Ravens are confident that Rice will score soon, but as of now, they're happy to see the running back grind out tough yardage. Rice's low center of gravity allows him to carry would-be tacklers, while he has also displayed shifty quickness when he gets the ball in space.
"How many plays does Ray make where he made a guy miss, ran by somebody or ran through an arm tackle and got us a big third-down conversion on long yardage?" asks Harbaugh. "I mean, that's just invaluable. That's what good backs do. They leave, Woody Hayes used to say, 'a trail of pearls,' [as in] guys who've missed tackles. That's what you look for in a good back."
toting the ball, Baltimore believes it has three different backs that can take over a game at any time. In Cleveland, it was Rice. The following week, McGahee totaled 112 yards. And in the Ravens' Week 12 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, McClain went for a career-high 88 yards on 18 attempts.
"Ray has expanded himself with the things he can do and the confidence he builds in the coaching staff," Harbaugh continues. "We're a three-headed monster, and we're going to play all three guys."
Rice's contributions extend off the field, as well. From his youth in New Rochelle, N.Y., Rice has been very active in the community.
His mother, Janet, works with physically and mentally challenged children, and Rice often visited her classes to spend time with the kids. And just last week, Rice was in the Baltimore community with teammates to deliver baskets of food to families in need for Thanksgiving.
"I like having fun with the kids, and letting them know they're special - just being there for them," Rice says. "Sometimes kids need that. That's definitely something I want to do in my career, be a positive role model for kids who need one."
Such a positive and hard-working outlook, both on and off the field, serves as evidence that Rice is learning what it means to be a veteran in this league.
"Our coaches say that after the first few games, we can't think we're rookies," he says. "We have to be able to play up to the veterans' level, because you never know when your number is going to be called. At the same time, there is still a lot of football to be learned, so I just try to stay humble."
This article will also appear in the free Gameday Magazine available at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 7.