Collegian File Photo
On an early August morning, former Massachusetts and current Baltimore Ravens running back Matt Lawrence eagerly watches and cheers on his teammates as they lift their knees high in the humid Westminster, Md. air, jumping through a rope ladder while securing a 15-pound weighted football filled with sand.
Lawrence carries the weighted ball everywhere he goes, from drill to drill, practice to practice, going through the motions mentally so that when he returns from a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve last season, he will be ready to start his second season in the Charm City.
"When I get back on the field, I will be able to hold that ball so tight, it won't even be funny," Lawrence says.
Finishing his collegiate career in 2007 with the Minutemen after spending his first two collegiate seasons at Connecticut, Lawrence has since had an interesting journey through the NFL so far.
Lawrence signed with the Chicago Bears as a rookie free agent in 2008 but was later released. Last January, he signed with the Ravens and made a strong contribution on special teams in his first season with the team before his season was cut short.
Lawrence played in eight games in 2009, totaling 16 special teams tackles, four rushes for zero yards and one reception for four yards before going down in Week 11 in a 17-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In his first NFL game, he had three special teams tackles and forced a fumble in a 38-24 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. He would not play another down for the Ravens in 2009.
After playing in six games as a freshman and 10 as a sophomore for the Huskies, Lawrence decided he needed a change.
Former UMass coach and current Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown gave him that opportunity.
"I give a lot of credit to coach Brown, he took me as a transfer late coming out of UConn. We had a month until camp, I signed in July and if it wasn't for him, who knows where I would be," Lawrence says. "I just thanked him for the opportunity to play the game I love."
Lawrence got to catch up with his former head coach when the Terrapins visited Ravens training camp in early August, as the two reminisced about their time spent in Amherst.
As a Minuteman, Lawrence compiled an impressive resume, playing in 43 games, starting 24, and rushing for 2,035 yards with 21 touchdowns.
But in his first game in a UMass uniform in 2005, Lawrence went down with a knee injury and redshirted the rest of the season.
In 2006, he came back and started seven games at fullback and blocked for the second-leading all-time rusher in UMass history, Steve Baylark.
Much like he did in college, Lawrence now wants to overcome a serious injury and find success at the next level.
"You know you want to get out there so bad," Lawrence says. "Anything you love and can't do it, and you're so close. When I first got hurt it was a long way away, but now that I'm so close to coming back, I just want to be out there."
While Lawrence has been held out of contact drills and has not seen any action in any preseason games, he has learned a lot over the past two seasons from veterans such as Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, as well as third-year back and starter Ray Rice.
"You learn a lot especially being here for two years, [you learn] a lot of little stuff, techniques, hitting the holes a certain way, and that's what I take away from guys like Willis and Le'Ron," Lawrence says.
Coming off of a 9-7 year, which ended with a divisional playoff defeat to the Colts, the Ravens bolstered their offensive unit with a pair of new receivers, acquiring Anquan Boldin and signing Donte' Stallworth while getting younger on defense by drafting defensive tackle Terrance Cody and linebacker Sergio Kindle.
The Ravens are a popular pick to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 2000, but Lawrence wants his team to take it one game at a time.
"Obviously we want to win every game, and I kind of have the old school mentality, to get ready for one game at a time," Lawrence says. "Everybody wants to win a championship, but personally, I want to get ready for the first game, and then the next game, and then the game after that."
This preseason and upcoming season, Lawrence is seeing some former UMass teammates that are currently trying to make an NFL roster from the opposite sideline .
One of those former teammates is New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who is the NFL's current leader in preseason receptions, including four touchdowns so far.
Along with the Giants, the Ravens face former UMass offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse and the New York Jets Week 1. Ducasse, an All-American at UMass, was drafted in the second round in 2009 and has impressed so far in camp. Moved from tackle to guard after being drafted, Ducasse, could start against the Ravens Sept. 13.
Safety James Ihedigbo and receivers Brandon London and Jeremy Horne are also on NFL rosters, while 11 players from UMass' 2009 team were invited to NFL training camps.
"We are top of the line. I definitely represent for the players coming out of the CAA. We are all over the place, we work hard," Lawrence says.
Lawrence's transition to the Ravens was made easier with two coaches who have ties to the UMass program.
Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks and his son, offensive assistant Jason Brooks, both coached for the Minutemen.
Clarence played offensive line for UMass from 1970-72, and was named a captain in his final season after earning All-Conference and All-East honors. From 1976-80, he coached the defensive ends.
Jason joined the team last season, helping the offensive unit in a number of different areas. For two months in 2007, he helped the Minutemen's defensive backs in spring practice under Coach Brown.
"Matt and I hit it off right away. I always followed him," Clarence Brooks says. "I still keep in touch with as many as my UMass friends as I can. [I] haven't been back to the campus in a while, but I look forward to doing that one day."
Like Lawrence, the younger Brown is impressed with the NFL talent not only coming out of UMass, but out of the entire Colonial Athletic Association.
"I've always told guys, no matter where you are, scouts are tireless workers and they will find you," Jason Brooks says. "To see guys from UMass, Richmond, James Madison, other I-AA schools, Division II and III schools, I think we will see more guys coming from that conference in the years to come."
Looking back on his UMass days, there are a few things Lawrence will take with him and misses off the field from his days in Amherst.
"Don't take UMass for granted, keep going, and Don Brown taught me to go 100 miles an hour," Lawrence says. "Coaches talk about that, but he emphasized it more than any other coach.
"I miss Antonio's and Bueno Y Sano, and Black Sheep and Pasta Y Basta, restaurant-wise. But you miss college, and you always miss the guys and try to keep in contact with them."