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Jill Biden pays surprise visit to Ukraine, meets first lady

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Jill Biden Pays Surprise Visit To Ukraine, Meets First Lady
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By DARLENE SUPERVILLE

UZHHOROD, Ukraine (AP) — Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, holding a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with first lady Olena Zelenska to show U.S. support for the embattled nation as Russia presses its punishing war in the eastern regions.

Biden traveled under the cloak of secrecy, becoming the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine during its 10-week-old conflict with Russia.

“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” the U.S. first lady told Zelenska. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine, traveling by vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian border village where she had toured a border processing facility.

Zelenska thanked Biden for her “courageous act” and said, “We understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war when military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day — even today.”

The two first ladies came together in a small classroom, sitting across a table from one another and greeting each other in front of reporters before they met in private. Zelenska and her children have been at an undisclosed location for their safety.

The school where they met has been turned into transitional housing for Ukrainian migrants from elsewhere in the country.

The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would like to be doing himself.

President Joe Biden, who took a call from his wife while she was in the motorcade after the visit to Uzhhorod, said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed he could not visit Ukraine to see conditions “firsthand” but that he was not allowed, likely due to security reasons. The White House said as recently as last week that the president “would love to visit” but there were no plans for him to do so at this time.

The meeting came about after the two first ladies exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to U.S. officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorized to discuss the ladies’ private communications.

As she arrived at the school, Biden, who was wearing a Mother’s Day corsage that was a gift from her husband, embraced Zelenska and presented her with a bouquet. After their private meeting, the two joined a group of children who live at the school in making tissue-paper bears to give as Mother’s Day gifts.

Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

Her visit was limited to western Ukraine; Russia is concentrating its military power in eastern Ukraine, and she was not in harm’s way. On the same day as Biden’s visit, a Russian bomb flattened a school in eastern Ukraine that had been sheltering about 90 people in its basement, with dozens feared dead. Also Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Ukraine to meet with the president and “reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people,” according to his office.

Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, she toured its border processing facility, surveying operations set up by the United Nations and other relief organizations to assist Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a religious service in a tent set up as a chapel, where a priest intoned, “We pray for the people of Ukraine.”

And before that, in Kosice, Biden met and offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia who have been displaced by Russia’s war. She assured them that the “hearts of the American people” are behind them.

At a bus station in the city that is now a 24-hour refugee processing center, Biden found herself in an extended conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggles to explain the war to her three children because she cannot understand it herself.

“I cannot explain because I don’t know myself and I’m a teacher,” Victorie Kutocha, who had her arms around her 7-year-old daughter, Yulie, told Biden.

At one point, Kutocha asked, “Why?” seeming to seek an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.

’It’s so hard to understand,” the first lady replied.

The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia, providing an average of 300 to 350 people daily with food, showers, clothing, emergency on-site accommodations and other services, according to information provided by the White House.

Biden also dropped in at a Slovakian public school that has taken in displaced students.

Slovakian and Ukrainian moms were brought together at the school for a Mother’s Day event while their children made crafts to give them as gifts.

Biden went from table to table meeting the mothers and kids. She told some of the women that she wanted to come and ” say the hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine.”

“I just wanted to come and show you our support,” she said before departing for Vysne Nemecke.

In recent weeks border crossings are averaging less than 2,000 per day, down from over 10,000 per day immediately after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and a large portion of that flow is daily cross border traffic.

Biden is on a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight U.S. support for Ukrainian refugees and for the allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia that are providing a safe haven for them.

She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting with U.S. troops and meeting with Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.

With her trip, the American first lady followed the path of prior sitting first ladies who also traveled to war or conflict zones.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited servicemen abroad during World War II to help boost troop morale. Pat Nixon joined President Richard Nixon on his 1969 trip to South Vietnam, becoming the first first lady to visit a combat zone, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. She flew 18 miles from Saigon in an open helicopter, accompanied by U.S. Secret Service agents.

Hillary Clinton visited a combat zone, stopping in Bosnia in 1996. Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Laura Bush went to Kabul in 2005 and Melania Trump accompanied President Donald Trump to Iraq in December 2018.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the name of Ukraine’s first lady is Olena Zelenska, not Olena Zelenskyy.

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Gophers coach P.J. Fleck on early fourth-down decision: ‘I would do it again’

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Gophers Coach P.j. Fleck On Early Fourth-Down Decision: ‘I Would Do It Again’
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Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck made a puzzling decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from inside his team’s own 30-yard line during the first quarter against Purdue on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Minnesota had run the ball five times for five total yards and had the ball at its own 29-yard line. Trailing 7-0, the U went to its wildcat package for the first time this season. Quarterback Cole Kramer did not find a hole and was stuffed for no gain.

With great field position, Purdue tacked on a 42-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead en route to a 20-10 win during the U’s Homecoming. Those three points looked as if they would decide the game until Purdue was able to tack on the late touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

“Felt like we needed to do something,” Fleck explained. “It only cost us three points, but it was worth it. I would do it again. We got to be able to get fourth-and-1.”

Fleck said he was OK with the play call using one of their short-yardage packages.

“We do that in spring ball and trust the people that are going to be able to do it and trust the call,” Fleck added. “We didn’t execute. We got blown back. It didn’t matter what call we were going to call there.”

Fleck said he was looking for a spark. The U went three-and-out on the opening drive, and Tanner Morgan had a tipped pass intercepted on the second series.

“We got to get something moving,” Fleck said. “You can’t sit there and say, ‘If you backtrack now, in hindsight, should you have done that?’ You don’t know the game is going to go that way.”

Fleck said his rationale was: If the Gophers don’t convert on fourth down, they would have to hold Purdue to a field goal.

“Is that worth it?,” Fleck added. “And I said ‘yes.’ ”

NO SIGNS

Fleck said there were no indicators this week to tip off the Gophers’ slow slow on Saturday.

“Not at all,” he said. “They had a tremendous practice on Tuesday, really good practice on Wednesday. You can always dissect something. Ah, there’s the reason. No.”

Morgan went to his offense during the first quarter and told them they were not playing hard enough, according to KFXN-FM. Morgan then connected with Daniel Jackson for a 66-yard completion, but Matthew Trickett missed a 28-yard field goal.

“We just didn’t execute,” Fleck said.

BRIEFLY

Fleck fell to 2-19 when trailing at the half. He was 0-17 until he beat Purdue last October. The Gophers also came back to beat Wisconsin last November. … Gophers defensive players Terell Smith, Braelen Oliver, Jah Joyner and guard Chuck Filliaga were three additional players spotted Saturday dealing with injuries. … Quintin Redding had a 20-yard punt return to set up the U’s third-quarter touchdown. He had a 64-yard punt return in the fourth quarter called back due to a holding call on Derik LeCaptain. … Trickett was 5 for 5 on field goals this season before his short-distance miss in the second quarter. He later connected from 45 yards out, just before the half. … The U announced an attendance of 48,288 for its “stripe out” Saturday.

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Magic aim to start building Sports + Entertainment District by early 2023

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For the Orlando Magic, the last month — and especially since training camp started last week — has been about breaking in the team’s new state-of-the-art 130,000-square-foot AdventHealth Training Center.

Although the Magic are getting settled in their new training facility, they’re still keeping their attention on a bigger project that’s been in the works for nearly a decade.

Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins recently told the Orlando Sentinel that the organization is planning to start construction on the long-awaited $500-million-plus downtown Sports + Entertainment District by the end of March 2023.

He added that the project is expected to be a “two-year build process” and be completed “sometime in 2025″ but wasn’t sure when exactly it’d be done.

Pat Gallagher, director of the Sports + Entertainment District, told GrowthSpotter in early September that the team would be releasing more information about the project within the next few months.

“We’re still very much on track and certainly believe that we should be in the ground by the end of the first quarter next year, starting some construction,” Martins said. “Our development partner is working on finalizing all the financing as we speak. They hope to get through that this calendar year. Provided the market stays and doesn’t get much worse, hopefully, we’ll be able to get into the ground by the end of the first quarter [of 2023].”

The Sports + Entertainment District will be a mixed-use district on the 8.4 acres north of Amway Center and east of the team’s training facility, which also has an orthopedic and sports medicine clinic run by AdventHealth.

The project will include several amenities, including a hotel tower, restaurants, meeting and retail space, a parking garage and 420,000 square feet of office space.

The team’s business staff, which has been working out of leased 23,000-square-foot space in downtown’s CNL Building II next to City Hall after leaving their longtime offices in Maitland’s RDV Sportsplex last year, will move into the Sports + Entertainment District office space once completed.

The Magic are bringing on a yet-to-be-announced development partner for the Sports + Entertainment District.

“The pandemic actually caused us to have the need to change development partners, so we went through that process over the course of the last year,” Martins said. “They’re very excited about it and believe in the vision the development will come together and the pieces within it.

“It’s very much the same we’ve talked about: the hotel, office, music venue and sports and entertainment-related retail. The vision and plan very much remain the same. We’ve got a development partner that believes in that vision and that it can be very successful.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.

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Column: As Wrigley Field prepares to close its doors for the season, the Chicago Cubs look ahead to better days — again

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Column: As Wrigley Field Prepares To Close Its Doors For The Season, The Chicago Cubs Look Ahead To Better Days — Again
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After the end of the 2014 Chicago Cubs season, Theo Epstein spoke optimistically about the upcoming offseason.

It was time to get serious.

“Knowing the money will be there changes the lens in which you view every transaction,” said Epstein, then the president of baseball operations.

The Cubs had cleared about $41 million off the payroll after their third straight last-place finish in the National League Central, and Epstein and business operations president Crane Kenney were addressing a group of season ticket holders at the Oriental Theater.

The Cubs wound up spending smartly that offseason, bringing in starter Jon Lester on a six-year, $155 million deal that turned out to be arguably the best signing in team history. They turned the corner in the rebuild in 2015, making it to the National League Championship Series and winning the World Series one year later.

Once again the Cubs are voicing optimism and promising to spend money in the offseason, though this time it’s Jed Hoyer making the big decisions. Whether the Cubs are close to turning the corner in the rebuild that can’t be called a rebuild is a question that can’t be answered until we see what moves Hoyer makes and whether the current group can build on its strong finish in 2022.

Manager David Ross said before Saturday’s 2-1 win against the Cincinnati Reds that he was excited about the team’s growth and work ethic, though he cautioned they’re still a ways off from where they need to be.

“Those are good signs,” he said. “We’ll continue to grow. We’ve got a long way to go to get better, to competing for a World Series, but these guys are on a mission to do that.”

The Cubs extended their winning streak to six games and have taken 10 of their last 11. Seiya Suzuki’s solo home run in the seventh was the winning blast, and Adbert Alzolay and Wade Miley combined for five hitless innings of relief.

The Cubs end their home schedule Sunday at Wrigley Field, which likely will be the last chance for fans to say one final goodbye to catcher Willson Contreras, the only remaining active player from the 2016 champions.

The Cubs held a tribute during Saturday’s game for Jason Heyward, another member of the ‘16 champs who was told last month that he’ll be let go after the season. After a highlight package of Heyward aired on the video boards, the outfielder stepped out of the dugout to a standing ovation and flashed his World Series ring.

Most of the 2016 Cubs have had their farewells, and after this season the only one left will be pitcher Kyle Hendricks. Heyward said Thursday that when he signed in 2015, some former teammates told him: “It’s the goat, brother. You ain’t gonna beat the goat.”

But that team ended the Billy Goat curse, and now there are no more mythical obstacles preventing the Cubs from replicating that success. It’s all on Hoyer and Chairman Tom Ricketts.

This has not been a season to celebrate on the North Side despite the uplifting ending. The Cubs’ play at Wrigley has been particularly uninspiring with a 36-44 home record.

A few moments in 2022 will be remembered years from now, though for some in the left-field bleachers the season’s biggest highlight was watching Epstein posing for pictures while sprawled out in the basket, a final goodbye to Chicago before he packed up and moved his family out East.

The Cubs are 1-70 when trailing entering the ninth inning, a tragic number that needs no analysis. Their one comeback win came on Aug. 20 at Wrigley, when Nick Madrigal singled home the tying run in the ninth and Contreras had a walk-off RBI single in the 11th. Maybe Marquee Sports Network can play it on a loop all winter.

In truth, this was the kind of season most Cubs fans were accustomed to before Epstein signed Lester eight years ago, thus raising the hopes for a championship and sustained success. They got it right — except for the sustained part.

Hoyer and Ricketts have said the money will be there for future success, and for the sake of Cubs fans, let’s hope they spend it wisely.

And the Cubs aren’t done hyping the future. They brought some of their top prospects to Chicago this weekend to get acclimated to the organization, including Class-A outfielder Owen Caissie, acquired in the Yu Darvish deal with the San Diego Padres that signaled the beginning of the end of the winning era.

“My biggest takeaway is everyone seems happy here,” Caissie, 20, said. “Like when I’m walking down the street, everyone has a smile on their face. It’s pretty cool.”

Heyward basically said the same thing about Chicago on his way out.

“The sports city here, obviously I know it’s been tough on the winning side those last few years, “ he said. “But either way, Chicago doesn’t take that stuff for granted, and to me that’s been something that has been awesome to be a part of. Just taking walks, going around the city. As a professional, as someone who is a ballplayer in the city, people embrace that, they respect that and they respect their space.

“They want you to enjoy what they’re enjoying, and that is something that’s really cool and unique about the city.”

One more game at Wrigley, with Marcus Stroman taking the ball Sunday in his final start before the three-game, season-ending series in Cincinnati.

The ballpark will close for the winter, and the neighborhood bars and restaurants will try to find ways to make some money until opening day returns in April.

It’s going to be a long winter for Cubs fans, but they’ll keep on keeping on.

They know the drill.

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Ian leaves dozens dead as focus turns to rescue, recovery

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Dozens of Florida residents left their flooded and splintered homes by boat and by air on Saturday as rescuers continued to search for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Ian, while authorities in South Carolina and North Carolina began taking stock of their losses.

The death toll from the storm, one of the strongest hurricanes by wind speed to ever hit the U.S., grew to nearly three dozen, with deaths reported from Cuba, Florida and North Carolina. The storm weakened Saturday as it rolled into the mid-Atlantic, but not before it washed out bridges and piers, hurdled massive boats into buildings onshore and sheared roofs off homes, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.

At least 35 people were confirmed dead, including 28 people in Florida mostly from drowning but others from Ian’s tragic aftereffects. An elderly couple died after their oxygen machines shut off when they lost power, authorities said.

As of Saturday, more than 1,000 people had been rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwestern coast alone, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star general and head of the National Guard, told The Associated Press while airborne to Florida.

Chris Schnapp was at the Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers on Saturday, waiting to see whether her 83-year-old mother-in-law had been evacuated from Sanibel Island. A pontoon boat had just arrived with a load of passengers from the island — with suitcases and animals in tow — but Schnapp’s mother-in-law was not among them.

“She stayed on the island. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law own two businesses over there. They evacuated. She did not want to go,” Schnapp said. Now, she said, she wasn’t sure if her mother-in-law was still on the island or had been taken to a shelter somewhere.

On Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, houses were reduced to splinters and boats littered roadways as a volunteer group went door-to-door Saturday, asking residents if they wanted to be evacuated. Helen Koch blew her husband a kiss and mouthed the words “I love you” as she sat inside a rescue helicopter that was lifting her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety.

River flooding posed a major challenge at times to rescue and supply delivery efforts. The Myakka River washed over a stretch of Interstate 75, forcing a traffic-snarling highway closure for a while Saturday on the key corridor linking Tampa to the north with the hard-hit southwest Florida region that straddles Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. Later Saturday, state officials said, water levels had receded enough that I-75 could be fully reopened. However, they said monitors were out keeping close watch on constantly changing river levels.

While rising waters in Florida’s southwest rivers have crested or are near cresting, the levels aren’t expected to drop significantly for days, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming in Tampa.

Elsewhere, South Carolina’s Pawleys Island — a beach community roughly 75 miles (115 kilometers) up the coast from Charleston — was among the places hardest hit. Power remained knocked out to at least half of the island Saturday.

Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said Friday’s storm was “insane to watch.” He said waves as high as 25 feet (7.6 meters) washed away the local pier — an iconic landmark — near his home.

“We watched it hit the pier and saw the pier disappear,” said Wilder, whose house 30 feet (9 meters) above the ocean stayed dry inside. “We watched it crumble and and watched it float by with an American flag.”

The Pawleys pier was one of at least four along South Carolina’s coast destroyed by battering winds and rain. Parts of the pier, including barnacle-covered pylons, littered the beach. The intracoastal waterway was strewn with the remnants of several boat houses knocked off their pilings.

John Joseph, whose father built the family’s beige beach house in 1962, said Saturday he was elated to return from Georgetown — which took a direct hit. He found his Pawleys Island home entirely intact.

“Thank God these walls are still here, and we feel very blessed that this is the worst thing,” he said of the sand that swept under his home. “What happened in Florida — gosh, God bless us. If we’d had a Category 4, I wouldn’t be here.“

In North Carolina, the storm claimed four lives and mostly downed trees and power lines, leaving over 280,000 people statewide without power Saturday morning, officials said. Two of the deaths were from storm-related vehicle crashes while officials said a man also drowned when his truck plunged into a swamp, and another man was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.

In southwest Florida, authorities and volunteers were still assessing the damage as shocked residents tried to make sense of the disaster.

“I want to sit in the corner and cry. I don’t know what else to do,” Stevie Scuderi said, mud clinging to her purple sandles as she shuffled through her mostly destroyed apartment in Fort Myers.

On Saturday, a long line of people waited outside an auto parts store in Port Charlotte, where a sign read, “We have generators now.” Hundreds of cars were lined up outside a gas station, and some people walked, carrying gas cans to their nearby cars.

At Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers, charter boat captain Ryan Kane inspected damage to two boats Saturday. The storm surge pushed several boats and a dock onshore. He said the boat he owns was totaled so he couldn’t use it to help rescue people. Now, he said, it would be a long time before he’d be chartering fishing clients again.

“There’s a hole in the hull. It took water in the motors. It took water in everything,” he said, adding: “You know boats are supposed to be in the water, not in parking lots.”

___

Kinnard reported from Pawleys Island, South Carolina; Associated Press contributors include Freida Frisaro in Miami; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Gerald Herbert in Pine Island, Florida; Mike Pesoli in Lehigh Acres, Florida; and Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia.

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Julius Randle embraces playing faster and without the ball

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The Knicks have been slow under Tom Thibodeau. Very slow.

Their offense was dead-last in pace during the coach’s first campaign, then moved up just one spot to 29th last season.

With the first week of training camp in the books, the Knicks have been vague about specific goals with one exception: playing faster.’

“It’s just the way the game is going,” Julius Randle said. “There are so many more possessions, high-scoring games. So, it’s just the way the league is going and an adjustment that everybody has to make.”

Randle buying into a quicker pace is important toward that endeavor. The power forward spent much of the last two seasons operating with the ball while leading the team, by far, in isolations. So it was an encouraging sign that Randle said he dropped weight in the summer to get up and down the floor.

“I want to be able to adjust and play faster, play on and off the ball,” Randle said. “For me, being in shape is always number one, so I take pride in that and every year I try to go back and look at how and adjust how I can be better and play faster and quicker basketball. Be efficient.

On paper, the Knicks’ starting lineup isn’t constructed for a run-and-gun style. That’s more the vibe of the reserves with Obi Toppin, Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes.

But Thibodeau asserted Saturday that Randle is adept in transition and playing off the ball. He witnessed it as an opposing coach when Randle was in New Orleans alongside Anthony Davis and Los Angeles alongside either D’Angelo Russell or Brandon Ingram.

“Having coached against him, one of the things I worried about was him running the floor,” Thibodeau said. “So if we can get him down the floor and catch small guys on him, catch the defense before it’s set — that’s a big advantage for us. Playing off the ball and catching it on the run and driving it through the elbow. Those are things that he’s done well in the past and I want him to get back to that.”

Of course, this will require an adjustment from Randle. It’s one thing to finish a lay-up in transition, it’s another to run around without the ball in the half-court. Egos tend to get involved when a player is asked to relinquish the control of the offense.

But that’s the reality as Randle enters his fourth season with the Knicks. He’ll finally have a reliable playmaker as the starting point guard in Jalen Brunson. RJ Barrett’s evolution calls for more opportunities.

Randle can succeed as the secondary option in motion.

“Because of the strength of the club, we can use him in different ways,” Thibodeau said. “He doesn’t always have to have the ball. He can play off the ball.”

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Ravens sign CB Kevon Seymour off practice squad, elevate OT David Sharpe, OLB Brandon Copeland

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Ravens Sign Cb Kevon Seymour Off Practice Squad, Elevate Ot David Sharpe, Olb Brandon Copeland
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The Ravens signed cornerback Kevon Seymour off their practice squad Saturday and elevated two other players ahead of Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.

Seymour, a dependable special teams contributor, played in nine games last year, making two starts. He’s yet to appear in a game this season. No Ravens cornerbacks were on Friday’s injury report, but the team has rotated its reserves early this season because of injuries and inconsistency.

Offensive tackle David Sharpe and outside linebacker Brandon Copeland (Gilman) are expected to play Sunday after practice squad promotions. Sharpe, who played in three games last season, helps the Ravens’ depth out wide, where Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and Patrick Mekari (ankle) are dealing with injuries. Stanley is questionable for Week 4, while Mekari is doubtful.

Copeland signed with the Ravens’ practice squad last week and had a sack late in the win against the New England Patriots. With Justin Houston (groin) doubtful for Sunday’s game and new signing Jason Pierre-Paul still ramping up, Copeland could be in line for significant action.

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