When the Ravens selected offensive guard John Urschel in the fifth round of the NFL draft out of Penn State last May, he was something of a curiosity -- a math scholar with a 4.0 grade-point average who had won the academic equivalent of the Heisman trophy.
By the end of the season, though, Urschel had gained attention for more than his academic accomplishments. He emerged as a valuable stand-in at right guard when a season-ending foot injury to right tackle Rick Wagner forced the Ravens to shift Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda to right tackle.
Urschel started five games, including both playoff games. He more than held his own in single-blocking situations against New England Patriots veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork in an AFC divisional-round loss at Gillette Stadium.
"It was crazy," Urschel said. "I used to watch Wilfork when I was in high school. Anytime you lose and you lose in that type of fashion, you have to look at yourself first and just ask yourself, 'What could I have done better? What more could I have done?' So, that's really what I started loking at when I thought about the game."
Urschel started the season as a reserve after beating fellow former Penn State offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley for a roster spot. He played in 11 regular season games and graded out well.
"It was a good rookie campaign for me personally," Urschel said. "I just wanted to come out, make the team and just try to help in any way I could. The biggest thing going forward is just trying to improve in the offseason, try to come back the best football player I possibly can.
"It's different. This is my first real offseason. In college, you have eyes on you. You have people telling you what to do. This is the first time I've had, I guess, about three months to myself since high school. It's on me to motivate myself."
Both starting offensive guards, Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, are returning. So, a starting job in 2015 is unlikely for Urschel. But he showed this season that the Ravens could count on him to play when needed.
Urschel said he built his confidence and is aware of what he needs to do to get better, including improving his blocking techniques. He credited veteran offensive line coach Juan Castillo for teaching him a lot as a rookie.
"I'm blessed to have him as a coach, and he's been a big part of why my rookie campaign has been so successful," Urschel said. "I'm very thankful to have him."