Jack Cornell gets 2nd chances with Ravens

As Jack Cornell watched the 2012 NFL Draft in April, he saw teammate after teammate realize his dream of being “drafted to play professional football”:https://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/04/four_illini_drafted_in_first_two_rounds. First, it was Whitney Mercilus, followed by A.J. Jenkins, Jeff Allen and Tavon Wilson. He watched and waited, still hanging on to the chance that his name may be called.

But it wasn’t.

The 6-foot-6, 315-pound former Illini offensive lineman didn’t let that sway his hope and determination to play in the NFL. So when the “Baltimore Ravens called him”:https://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/04/cornell_dimke_ford_sign_contracts_as_undrafted_free_agents two weeks after the draft, Cornell was ecstatic for the chance to play at the next level.

Four months later, Cornell has officially made the Baltimore Ravens practice squad.

“It doesn’t really matter how you get there,” Cornell said in a phone interview. “I was just fortunate enough to get a call and take advantage of every opportunity I can get. That’s what got me to this point.”

Cornell has made the most of his situation throughout his football career. He played only sparingly at Illinois his first two years before playing in all 13 games in his junior year, helping the Illini to the top rushing attack in the Big Ten. He became a team captain his senior year and started every game for the first time in his Illini career, receiving the Red Grange Award for dedication. He calls himself blessed, saying it has all been a whirlwind with just how far he’s come in his career.

He still keeps in contact with players like former Illinois offensive lineman Jeff Allen and current linemen Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic, who mentioned the two talk at least every other day. Cornell still feels like they are all brothers.

“He’s having a great time, and he’s really worked his ass off,” Pocic said. “He deserves it.”

Cornell played right guard for much of his time in college — all 19 of his starts in college were at that position — but injuries to the Ravens offensive line shifted him to right tackle, allowing him to line up with the Raven’s first-team offense, an experience that “he called humbling”:http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-08-01/sports/bal-jack-cornell-humbled-by-running-with-first-offense-at-right-tackle-20120731_1_deangelo-tyson-bryant-mckinnie-kelechi-osemele.

“To run with the ones and block for (Ravens quarterback) Joe Flacco, or make holes for (running back) Ray Rice, it definitely makes you step your game up. It forced me to focus in on every little detail of my job.”

It gave him a chance to line up next to right guard Marshal Yanda at times, the teammate the Ravens player development program assigned as Cornell’s mentor in his rookie season. Yanda hasn’t just taught Cornell about technique on the football field, but many things off the field, from taking care of his body to carrying himself around the locker room. And Cornell said he’s trying to emulate the type of player Yanda is.

As a member of the practice squad, Cornell is presented with a different challenge — trying to match up against the likes of linebacker Ray Lewis and the vaunted Ravens defense. It’s something that even the most veteran of linemen struggle with, and Cornell said he’s had the chance to see a lot of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.

“I just want to take advantage of it,” he said, with a reminder that if he’s not getting better, then he’s getting worse. “Getting to learn how to play professional football against the best in the world at what they do, I really try to focus on my technique, and it makes me work that much harder.”

Even though it may not have looked like it months ago, Cornell is doing exactly what he’s been doing his whole life at this time of year: playing football.

“My entire life, all I wanted to do is play in the National Football League,” Cornell said. “And now I’m living it. It’s so awesome.”

_Jamal can be reached at [email protected] and @JamalCollier._