OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) -A year ago, Jared Gaither was a college sophomore who couldn't legally drink a beer. Now he's the starting left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, one of three rookies on a makeshift offensive line receiving on-the-job training in the NFL.
Injuries to Jonathan Ogden, Adam Terry and Mike Flynn have forced the Ravens to put together a front line that includes Gaither and fellow rookies Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs. The trio has performed well enough to help the Ravens (4-2) win two straight.
``They've proven their mettle,'' offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel said Wednesday. ``They're growing leaps and bounds with this experience. Hopefully, we'll get healthy and they'll find a more familiar role as an understudy. But in the time they've been in there, you can't ask for more from them.''
After opting to leave the University of Maryland for the pros, Gaither was selected by Baltimore in the fifth round of the supplemental draft. He sat out the first four games of the season, then replaced an injured Terry in the second quarter at San Francisco.
The 6-foot-9, 350-pounder received his first NFL start last week against St. Louis, subbing for Ogden at the most important position on the offensive line. Gaither wasn't perfect, but he was good enough to help Baltimore to a 22-3 win.
Reflecting upon how his life has changed in the span of a year, Gaither smiled and said, ``It's hard to believe. I've been on a nice ride. I'm thankful where I've ended up, here in Baltimore, starting in the NFL. I think it's a blessing. I'm happy, my family is happy, and my friends are happy for me.''
Gaither, who turned 21 in March, was initially perceived to be a long-term project. But that plan ended with the rash of injuries that forced the Ravens to dip deep into their depth chart at offensive tackle.
``The learning curve was rapid. I didn't have as much time to adjust,'' he said. ``It was tough, but I've been working hard and I've been doing pretty good.''
Yanda, a third-round pick out of Iowa, figured his introduction to professional football would come from watching on the sideline. Instead, the 6-3, 310-pounder has started five straight games at right tackle.
``This was supposed to be a learning year for me,'' he said. ``I knew in the back of my mind there was a chance I would play, but it wasn't a good chance at all.''
Nothing happened in the preseason to change that assessment. But after Ogden was injured in the second quarter of the season opener, Yanda became a fixture on the offensive line. His classroom is the playing field, and his education has come swiftly.
``I'd say right now I'd give myself a D. I'm getting the job done, but it's not fundamentally sound by any means,'' he said. ``I've got a long way to go as far as being the player I can be. I was grabbing guys the last game. Leonard Little is a great player, but he sprained his ankle in the second quarter and that slowed him down a lot.''
Grubbs, the Ravens' top pick in the 2007 draft, has started the past two games at right guard. He enjoyed a standout career at Auburn, but playing in the NFL is entirely different.
Fortunately for Baltimore, he's made the adjustment without much difficulty.
Gaither, Yanda and Grubbs may one day become mentors in the locker room. For now, they're just trying to find a place on a veteran team with aspirations of reaching the Super Bowl.
``There's no time for young guys on this Baltimore Ravens squad,'' Gaither said. ``Our three numbers have been called and we have to bring it.''
Notes: CB Chris McAlister (knee) did not practice Wednesday and is doubtful for Sunday's game against Buffalo. ... Flynn (knee), Terry (ankle) and TE Todd Heap (hamstring) saw limited action.

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