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Harbaugh to play hardball in new era for Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- At a time of year when the weather calls for a trip to the beach or a stroll on a golf course, John Harbaugh starts thinking about football.

"I've got the same feeling now that I've had the past 24 years going to training camp, whether it was at Western Michigan, or Philadelphia or Baltimore," he said. "You just can't wait to see the guys and walk out there on the practice field. You can feel that sense of excitement."

This training camp will be unlike all the others for Harbaugh -- and for many of the Baltimore Ravens.

The late July start, short practices and the option of sleeping at home -- all the features of a Brian Billick training camp -- have vanished. When the Ravens report Monday to McDaniel College in Westminster, they had better be ready to sweat.

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One of the main issues facing the Baltimore Ravens in training camp is to find out who will be the team's starting quarterback.

Billick was fired Dec. 31 after a nine-year run and replaced by Harbaugh, who waited more than two decades for this opportunity. He's already coached the players at a mandatory minicamp and in other offseason practice sessions, but now it's time to get serious.

"I feel excited, and I feel challenged. I'm looking forward to standing in front of an NFL team for the first time as a head coach," Harbaugh said. "The framework of the program has already been established, but putting it into play in a training camp setting, when they're all there focused on the season at hand, that's different."

Billick didn't run an easy camp, but he placed a high priority on making sure the players weren't overworked. If a veteran asked for an afternoon off, he usually was accommodated. That probably won't happen at Camp Harbaugh. Or is it Hardball?

"It's going to be challenging. The goal is to build a strong football team," Harbaugh said. "The goal at training camp is not to come out fresh. You want to come out strong."

The Ravens got a taste of Harbaugh's no-nonsense approach during the offseason, so when they don their shoulder pads next week they should know exactly what to expect.

"The groundwork and the foundation was laid during the minicamps and (organized team activities). The core of this football team understands what his expectations are," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I don't think there will be any culture shock. We've always prided ourselves in bringing players in who love the game of football. This challenge is what they'll be looking for."

Harbaugh, 45, learned the advantages of a tough training camp from his father, former college football coach Jack Harbaugh, and Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, under whom Harbaugh served as special teams coach from 1998-2006 before becoming secondary coach last season.

Billick had a policy of allowing veterans to spend the night at home after the first few days of camp. Harbaugh has mandated that all players must stay at the team hotel.

"There's a certain camaraderie that goes with that, a certain sacrifice," Harbaugh said. "I don't see any reason for guys to be driving home at night during training camp."

Besides, after two tough practices on a hot day, the players will probably prefer to just plop down in bed. And if there's one thing Harbaugh can be sure of, it's that he will get a good effort from those on the field.

"I have a lot of respect for coach Billick. The thing that I noticed about this football team is these guys know how to practice. They practice hard. They're very competitive," Harbaugh said. "Hopefully, we can build on that. We're trying to practice really fast so that we can play and think really fast on Sunday.

"The better we practice, the shorter it will be. There are a certain number of repetitions that we have to get done, and our philosophy is to do them right," he added. "So we're going to practice right and we're going to practice fast. The better they execute, the quicker the practice is going to be."

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis expects the transition from Billick to Harbaugh to go smoothly.

"You can't get drawn up into none of that. No matter if you change coaches, you change coordinators or whatever, football is football and it's going to always take care of itself," he said.

Harbaugh's most pressing issue will be to find a starting quarterback. Kyle Boller, Troy Smith and rookie Joe Flacco will be given every opportunity to win the job, and Harbaugh can't think of a better scenario to determine which player deserves the right to start the opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 7.

"This is the ideal situation because the players are going to make the decision by how they play. You don't always have that, because guys get established at positions," Harbaugh said. "The most pure form of competition is three guys battling for the ball, and that's what we have here. We probably will never have that again. Well, hopefully we won't have that for a long time."

The Ravens have scheduled 43 practices over their 26-day camp. Baltimore went 5-11 in 2007 and finished last in the AFC North, but Lewis has drawn optimism from the performance of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

"Any team can contend, just like the New York Giants," the linebacker said. "Nobody gave the Giants a chance last year. Any team that comes together wins the Super Bowl."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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