When the Ravens hired Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator in late January, a lot of conversations were devoted to how his playbook would emphasize the running game and getting the tight ends heavily involved in the passing game.
Another probable beneficiary of Kubiak's arrival, though, is versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
The former Harvard standout is slated for a significant pass-catching and blocking role as the new starting fullback after the Ravens released former Pro Bowler Vonta Leach. Juszczyk has inherited Leach's job and his No. 44 jersey.
"Last year was a great learning year, and Vonta was such an awesome mentor," Juszczyk said. "It stinks that we were fighting for the same job. I miss the guy because he's such a great guy, but last year was a good year for me to figure out what this whole NFL thing is about.
"I'm excited to use what I've learned and be a big part of this offense. I think the offense fits right into my skill set: blocking in space and catching the ball and all that stuff."
At 6-foot-1, 248 pounds, Juszczyk isn't in the mold of an old-school human battering ram like Leach. He's a hybrid fullback who was utilized like a tight end as well as an H-back and slot receiver in college before being drafted in the fourth round last year.
"I've gotten the term of 'Swiss Army Knife' a lot since high school because of my versatility," Juszczyk said. "They've got me doing a lot of different things."
Juszczyk caught 125 passes for 1,576 yards and 22 touchdowns at Harvard and was a two-time All-Ivy league selection. The former Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year and All-American selection caught 52 passes for 706 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior.
Juzczyk reminds Kubiak of athletic fullback James Casey, who caught 34 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns in 2012 for the Texans while playing for Kubiak. Casey signed a three-year, $14.6 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles last year.
"I’ve been very impressed with Kyle," Kubiak said. "We haven’t put the pads on yet, so fullbacks get judged when you put those pads on, but he reminds me a lot of a kid I had for a couple of years, James Casey.
"He played really well for me. He’s athletic and can make some plays down the field. I like fullbacks that can run, because there’s such a separation between them and the tailbacks. ‘Juice’ has responded well. Picking up [former Jacksonville Jaguars fullback] Shaun [Chapas], who’s a lot like ‘Juice’ as an athlete, that’s been a plus, too.”
As a rookie last season, Juszczyk played in every game. But he was strictly a special teams contributor, as he didn't catch any passes or have any carries. He did make five special teams tackles.
With Kubiak installing his West Coast offensive system, Jusczyck figures to have a more prominent role.
"I like this offense way better than last year's," Juszczyk said. "I think it's reallly going to pay off. I think we're going to be very explosive. I like how it's concept-based. We don't run a ton of different concepts, but we run a lot of different formations and a lot of different looks. You can get a lot done with a small amount of install."
Juszczyk is entering the second year of a four-year, $2.46 million contract that includes a $300,584 signing bonus.
The Ravens re-signed Leach during training camp last year after Juszczyk didn't excel in lead blocking drills in August.
Since that time, Juszczyk has worked diligently to upgrade his blocking and strengthen his body. Although Juszczyk appears bigger and stronger than a year ago, he says he's roughly the same weight.
"To be honest, Im about the same weight, but I've leaned out a lot," Juszczyk said. "I've lost eight-percent body fat since the end of last season. I think it's a more efficient weight than what I had last year. I think I'm getting a lot more movement than last year."