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Kurihara aiming high after impressing at Ravens minicamp

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Japanese wide receiver might have got onto the plane not really knowing what to expect, but he returned home with a good taste in his mouth.

From May 3-5, Takashi Kurihara earned a rare opportunity for a football player from Japan; he participated in the Baltimore Ravens’ rookie minicamp in Owings Mills, Maryland.

Kurihara said he received notification for the camp “three or four days before,” and wasn’t sure how well he could do against those possible future NFLers.

But the 25-year-old, who plays for the IBM Big Blue in Japan’s X League, was able to show off what he was capable of and perhaps altered the coaches’ perception of him.

“I won all the one-on-ones and had two touchdowns on the first day,” Kurihara said after a recent spring tournament game at Kawasaki Stadium. “That, I think, caught the coaches’ eyes.”

But Kurihara, whose personal sponsor helped bring about the opportunity (it sent his resume and highlight DVDs to the headquarters of Under Armour, a sporting goods company based in Baltimore, who then forwarded them to the Ravens), didn’t necessarily try to beat the other guys physically.

He instead tried to impress with his football IQ, and despite the linguistic disadvantage, he was also thick-skinned in voluntarily asking the coaches for more opportunities to exhibit his game.

Those tactics appeared to work. Because of his enterprising attitude, the Ravens executives did give Kurihara chances, and he took advantage.

“What I did was, I tried to memorize all the detailed parts of the assignments, and I ended up being able to almost perfectly play to the assignments,” he said. “And (the coaches) were like, ‘This guy doesn’t speak English very well, but does understand our assignments.’ “

Kurihara wasn’t certain how positive an evaluation he drew from the American Football Conference club, which won the Super Bowl in New Orleans back in February, during the short three days. But he thinks he at least put himself into consideration on whether the Ravens might call him back for this summer’s preseason training camp.

The Tokyo native seemingly made a good impression on the Ravens. Their wide receivers coach, Jim Hostler, said Kurihara did a great job and impressed him with his football intelligence.

“He picked things up very quickly here and made very few mistakes,” Hostler, a former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, told The Japan Times via email. “He was a good route runner and competed very well against guys that have been playing football for a very long time in this country.

“The best thing I can say is that he really looked like he belonged and fit with the other guys here.”

Kurihara said he originally thought he might be invited to the preseason training camp during the summer. But at the end of the day, it could be advantageous for him to get his first grasp of what the Ravens do at the minicamp, because, if he is called up once again in July, he will enter the training camp with its basic offensive concepts and plays already in his head.

Meanwhile, transferring to a new club in Japan, the Big Blue, could be a big plus for him in terms of making the NFL. The club has four American players, including former UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft, and English is its regular language on the gridiron.

A former Hosei University product, Kurihara said that Craft throws as good as any quarterbacks at the minicamp. Craft reckons that his teammate has a good chance of making the NFL, if not the 53-man roster.

“(Kurihara) could make a team, especially because he has ability to turn, kick and stuff,” Craft said. “If it’s not an active squad, I don’t see why they wouldn’t want him on a practice squad, because you’ve got a guy that not only can give you a look for you. He’s learning their offense.”

And while Kurihara humbly says he’s just hoping to get another shot in July, Craft confidently thinks Baltimore will bring him back to Maryland in the summer.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t call him back,” Craft said. “He probably goes back to the next camp, because, for them, it’s not a big deal. For them to fly him out there, take care of him or whatever.

“They need bodies. You can’t have 53 bodies for the whole year and get the look you want. They need bodies and the more reps he gets, the more he gets in front of their eyes, he might go in.”

Of course, it’s still a long shot for Kurihara to make the NFL in September. But he insists nothing is going to open his path unless he has the courage to aim high.

“Anyone who’s got the capability, he should try (to go to the NFL),” Kurihara emphasized.

In the past, wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita arguably had the best shot at the NFL for a Japanese player. Kinoshita, who now plays for X League’s Obic Seagulls, was called up by the Atlanta Falcons for their training camp in 2007 and 2008. He was with the club throughout the 2008 season as its international practice squad player.

Since Kinoshita, although some Japanese players have taken combines, nobody has had a chance to be called up for an NFL training camp until Kurihara this time.