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Ravens rookie RB Rice to start in NFL debut

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Ray Rice has every reason to be nervous before facing the New England Patriots on Thursday night.

Rice has never attended an NFL game. Now he's poised to play in one, starting at running back against the defending AFC champions in the Baltimore Ravens' preseason opener.

"I know I'll get the jitters a little bit when I go out there because this is my first experience," Rice said. "I've never seen a game, never been part of one. I was supposed to go to the Super Bowl this year but I couldn't go because I was training for the scouting combine. So this is going to be exciting."

Height: 5-8

Weight: 205

Draft: Rd. 2 (55th overall)

College: Rutgers

Rice was drafted with the 55th overall pick after rushing for a school-record 4,926 yards during three sensational seasons at Rutgers. He is expected to be a backup as rookie, but will start against the Patriots because Willis McGahee is sidelined with a knee injury.

The 5-foot-8 Rice has already made a solid impression in training camp. Now it's time for him to show what he can do against one of pro football's finest defensive units.

"They're building a dynasty up there. You have to respect what they can do," he said. "If I can do it against them, I can do it against anybody."

Rice certainly proved he could perform against several of the best college teams in the nation. In five games against schools ranked in the top 15, Rice averaged 142.2 yards rushing and scored six touchdowns.

After running for 280 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-30 rout of Ball State in the International Bowl, Rice decided it was time to see what the NFL was all about. So he entered the draft after his junior season, and Baltimore pounced on him in the second round.

The Ravens thus far have not been disappointed. Given that Rice had a whopping 910 carries at Rutgers and has repeatedly worked his way through Baltimore's renowned defense over the past two weeks, there is no reason to believe he won't excel against the Patriots.

"He's a rookie, but gosh he's had a lot of carries his whole career. As a running back, he's a veteran," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It will be new for him playing against an NFL defense, particularly that defense. It will be interesting to see how he'll do, but I would be surprised if he's not up to it."

Rice will be taking the majority of his handoffs from Kyle Boller, who said, "He's improved so much from the first time we saw him until now. I'll just tell him to do what he does in practice. I mean, he's making plays left and right.

"Obviously he's going to get excited, but I don't think the game is going to be too big for him."

Rice has made a career of running past taller, heavier athletes, and now it's time to find out how he fares against the biggest and strongest players in football.

"I think when the lights come on and he puts on those Ravens silks, he's going to know that it's time to play football," Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. "He's going to see that the game is at a faster pace, one that's faster than what he knows from college and here on the practice field."

Holding onto the football will be important. Rice rarely fumbled the ball at Rutgers, but playing in the NFL is different. Not only are the tackles more vicious, but the pros are quite proficient at stripping the ball -- especially from a running back seeking to squeeze an extra yard or two out of a carry.

"The hits do feel different, I'm not going to lie," Rice said after a recent practice. "You can't always fight against it. You've got to know when to go down sometimes if you can't get extra yards. That's when you have to be careful."

Although Rice has never watched an NFL game in person, he's seen enough of them on TV to know that touchdowns are usually celebrated with flair. Should Rice get into the end zone, he has no intention of tapping into his $1.1 million signing bonus by tossing the football into the seats.

"Throwing the ball in the stands is a little bit expensive," he said. "I'll stick with my same routine -- just give the ball to the ref and have fun with my teammates."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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