Friday, December 29, 2023

Ravens’ Tyler Linderbaum is as competitive as they come: ‘He just won’t allow himself to fail’


By Jeff Zrebiec

5h ago (December 29, 2023)

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The team stretch was over and the Solon High School football squad started to break into its position groups. For young Tyler Linderbaum, that meant one thing: It was time to loosen up his right arm.

Linderbaum’s earliest years on the football field were spent as a quarterback. That’s the position he envisioned playing at the high school level, and dozens of coaches over the years have learned that telling Linderbaum he couldn’t do something didn’t often generate a positive response. Linderbaum’s older brother, Logan, was an offensive lineman. Linderbaum was a quarterback, or so he thought.

The only problem was that kids who looked like Linderbaum didn’t play quarterback. He had that thick, sturdy neck, that short and squatty build, those wide shoulders. He had that Iowa farm boy strength, too, even though he didn’t grow up working in the corn fields.

So when Solon football coach Kevin Miller saw Linderbaum jogging over to the quarterback group at the start of one of his first high school practices, the first thing Miller did was chuckle. The second thing he did was walk over to Linderbaum and ask him what exactly he was doing.

“I kind of joked with him. I said, ‘I don’t know where you think you are going to be,’” said Miller. “‘But put your hard hat on and go over there with the big uglies.’”

Linderbaum wasn’t the only one who didn’t initially view himself as a center. He was recruited to nearby Iowa as a defensive tackle and played two games at that position as a freshman. Even after Linderbaum switched to the offensive line and eventually established himself as the best center in college football, there were NFL organizations that questioned whether he was big enough or his arms were long enough to thrive at the next level.

With their second first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens took that bet and are reaping the rewards. In just his second season, Linderbaum is already regarded as one of the top centers in football. He’s been one of the keys to the Ravens’ top-ranked run game, and heading into Sunday’s highly anticipated matchup with the Miami Dolphins where a win would give Baltimore the AFC’s top seed, Linderbaum has allowed zero sacks and three quarterback hits in 13 games this season.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh believes that with Linderbaum, Baltimore has the best center in football. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken says Linderbaum is playing at an “elite level.” Veteran right tackle Morgan Moses called Linderbaum “special” and predicted that the 23-year-old would become a “foundational piece” in Baltimore for years to come.

Just about everyone you talk to in the Ravens’ locker room brings up Linderbaum’s competitiveness, toughness and physicality. As a rookie, he played through a significant foot injury. This year, he barely missed any time with a high ankle sprain.

Stories about his traits are still being told in Solon, a city in Eastern Iowa, where Linderbaum was a multi-sport standout for the Spartans and a one-time winner of the “Solon Beef Days” hay bale toss; and in Iowa City, where he became yet another star offensive lineman produced by Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes program.

“You can’t measure someone’s toughness and competitive spirit,” Miller said. “He just has some of these elements that separate himself from these guys he competes against.”

The clip was shown before, during and after the 2022 NFL Draft almost as often as highlights of Linderbaum sprinting downfield and knocking down Big Ten defenders like bowling pins. There was Linderbaum, in his white, orange and black Solon High wrestling singlet, executing an overtime takedown of rival and future Iowa teammate and NFL first-round pick Tristan Wirfs in 2017 to win a key match.

Linderbaum rose from the mat, his mouth agape, and stomped around like a conquering hero. Wirfs was a state champion wrestler who had dominated Linderbaum in previous matchups. He also was significantly bigger than Linderbaum. Yet, the result showed the persistence, competitiveness and toughness that Linderbaum possessed, and it foreshadowed how he’d become one of the league’s best centers despite being considered undersized at 6-foot-2, 305 pounds with a below-average 31 1/8-inch arm size.

“When I first started wrestling, I was not good,” Linderbaum said. “I only wrestled for three years in high school. My sophomore year, I got my butt whooped.”

How bad did it get?

“I probably went 30-20,” Linderbaum said. “But most of those 30 wins were against fat puds, kids that probably shouldn’t have been wrestling, and I’m sure half of those were forfeits. The other 15 of those were against kids I should have beaten just because of my athleticism. But I started to learn how to wrestle, and then my junior and senior year, I did better.”

Linderbaum initially played basketball, but he opted to turn to wrestling because Solon needed a heavyweight to replace his brother. He struggled so much early that he quit on multiple occasions, but only temporarily. Getting thrown around wasn’t something he ever wanted to get used to. One such occasion came when Logan, who wrestled at Minnesota State Mankato, returned to Solon to practice with the high school team. Logan dominated his younger brother so thoroughly that Linderbaum left the gym in frustration.

“I’d be like, ‘I’m done,’ and I’d go take a five-minute walk and then come back in,” Linderbaum said. “I wouldn’t actually quit.”

By the time he graduated, Linderbaum had won 122 matches in just three years and registered fifth- and third-place finishes in the state. The lessons he learned, though, about leverage, balance and one-on-one competition served him well in the sport that he planned to play in college.

“In a competitive setting, you don’t want to lose,” Linderbaum said. “I feel like I’m a sore loser, so any time we’re in a competitive game or something like that, I want to give it my best, and the competitive spirit comes out.”

Iowa was preparing for the Outback Bowl in early 2019 when Ferentz decided to make the move. While Linderbaum had ability as a defensive tackle, the program didn’t have an intriguing center prospect in the pipeline. Iowa knew when recruiting him that he was a high-level center and there was no time to waste.

“He immediately started taking reps with the twos,” recalled then-Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras. “He couldn’t snap yet. Every snap was going between my legs or over my head, but he had this ability to pick things up fast and to win reps when his body was in a compromised position. You’d see Tyler contorted and bent and he finds a way to have really impressive power.”

By the following year, Linderbaum was the starting center for a program that breeds quality NFL offensive linemen. The year after that, he was already garnering attention for being one of the top centers in the country.

He wasn’t physically imposing, but he was uber-athletic for an offensive lineman. His fundamentals were sound and he was relentless, working through the whistle on every play. He took a defensive lineman’s approach to the center position. He wanted to attack the player in front of him, rather than always sitting back and trying to hold his ground.

Ferentz, a former offensive line coach in Baltimore, once described Linderbaum as being “too good to be true.” Still, early on in his college career, his teammates didn’t have a good read on him. Linderbaum is always aware of his surroundings and isn’t prone to chitchat unless he knows his company.

Petras and Iowa teammates Nico Ragaini and Riley Moss were playing the video game Call of Duty when Linderbaum came strolling through their dorm room. Wanting to test the young lineman, Moss invited him to take a game.

“He didn’t say much and we had no idea how he was as a Call of Duty player. No warmup at all and he went up and had 50 kills and one death in his first game,” Petras said. “It wasn’t like he was sitting on his Xbox all day. He was a four-sport athlete in high school. This dude had things to do, and he does 50 kills and one death. I’ve never sniffed that.”

Petras would later learn something else about Linderbaum. If you made him angry, you better be prepared to deal with the consequences. The two Iowa teammates were partying in the offseason outside of a friend’s house. Some button pushing started and Petras reached back from the truck they were in and struck Linderbaum in the head with a stick of deer jerky. All hell broke loose.

“Next thing I know, he climbed over in the middle seat, held both of my arms in one of his and he was on top of me and whaling on me with his other arm,” Petras said. “It was like, ‘Woah, OK, you win.’ When he flips the switch, it’s nothing to mess with. It’s just part of his competitive nature. He’s got that bite to him. When it’s time to go, he’s ready to go.”

Petras says without hesitation that Linderbaum is the most competitive person he’s ever been around. That even applies to Linderbaum’s annual hometown hay bale toss. The challenge is to toss a hay bale, which weighs approximately 60 pounds, over a bar that is elevated above. Linderbaum won it one year by clearing 14 feet.

Miller recently saw the competitive side of him, too. Miller and his son, Cam, were locked in a tight best-ball golf match with Linderbaum and his father, Todd, who is a good athlete in his own right.

“All of a sudden, Tyler found another gear,” Miller said. “It was like, ‘All right, we’re not losing.’ He just has that ‘it’ factor. He just won’t allow himself to fail. He wants to be the very best at what he does. That’s his M.O.”

Former Ravens standout guard Marshal Yanda, who has gotten to know Linderbaum through their shared Iowa and Baltimore ties, used to say that NFL rookies should be seen and not heard. That would have been just fine for the reserved Linderbaum, except his very position mandates that he is vocal.

As the center, Linderbaum has to make line calls and make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s a leadership position, and that complicated Linderbaum’s transition to the NFL, particularly as he was surrounded by a former league MVP quarterback and a veteran offensive line.

The fact that Linderbaum was selected with the draft pick the Ravens received from trading wide receiver Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals only added to the pressure. Teams don’t regularly take centers in the first round of the draft. The ones who are selected are essentially expected to become Pro Bowl-caliber players early in their careers. Linderbaum, who dismissed the concerns about his arm length, calling it “genetics, I guess,” is on that path.

“The only thing changed is he’s been in the league another year, but Tyler has been the same,” said Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. “The knowledge is there. He’s vocal. He’s being a leader. Even though he’s young, he’s been a leader, just stepping up. He’s very smart.”

Linderbaum doesn’t believe anything has changed with his demeanor from his rookie year to now, but he is certainly showing more personality and more playfulness around the media. During a practice last week, he chided veteran left tackle Ronnie Stanley for being the last offensive lineman out on the field. He and his locker mate and closest friend on the team, reserve offensive lineman Patrick Mekari, are constantly tweaking each other, much to the amusement of onlookers. Linderbaum recently stood behind a throng of television cameras and playfully called for Jackson to end his media availability, because it was the second-year center’s turn at the microphones.

“It comes from him being comfortable, and he also understands he has to find his space before he can confidently be able to voice his opinions,” Moses said. “But he’s taken the road of being a staple in this offense and a leader.”

Much of that goes on behind the scenes. Teammates see how locked in he is during meetings, how hard he works every day in the weight room. They know how many nagging injuries he’s already played through. If it were up to Linderbaum, he wouldn’t have missed any time with the high ankle sprain earlier this season. The team, though, held him back for two games.

“He’s tough as nails,” Moses said.

What drives Linderbaum, though, is he still feels there are so many areas where he can get better.

“I’m certainly not where I want to be, but I’ve definitely made steps from Year 1 to Year 2,” he said. “Trying to be more consistent has been a big focus point for me. There’s so many things that I can still get better at that I’m excited about.”

(Top photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images, Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)

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