In his first game in almost two years, the 2016 third-round pick had a sack in the preseason opener vs. Washington
The Ravens' third and final sack of their 23-3 trouncing of the Washington Redskins on Thursday night went down as a mere footnote in their preseason opener. But for Bronson Kaufusi, bringing down quarterback Nate Sudfeld for a 6-yard loss late in the fourth quarter was something he had dreamed of.
"It's important," Kaufusi said of the first sack of his fledgling NFL career. "It's the first step. Whenever you take that first step in the right direction, it's a good feeling, and it just makes you want to keep climbing."
Where that path takes Kaufusi remains to be seen, but his performance against Washington has solidified already budding optimism among the defensive coaches. Entering his second year as a professional, Kaufusi, 26, is listed as the backup to starter Brent Urban at defensive end, and defensive line coach Joe Cullen has been encouraged by Kaufusi's play thus far.
"I was really pleased with how he's been progressing in camp, and it showed in the game against the Redskins," Cullen said Sunday. "He showed some of his quickness and strength to be on the edge, like in the early downs. He played with a good motor, and he did a good job getting the quarterback down. I was happy for him. He's still progressing, and the strength isn't quite where we want it to be, but I'm really pleased with how he's playing."
The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Kaufusi hasn't exactly been flying under the radar. He graduated from Brigham Young with a degree in statistics and big numbers: 26 1/2 sacks, fifth most in program history. His senior year, he had 11 sacks, 64 tackles and 20 tackles for loss.
The Ravens took him in the third round of the 2016 draft, but in one of his first training camp practices, Kaufusi suffered a broken left ankle that sent him to the injured reserve and sidelined him for his entire rookie campaign.
The torn ACL he suffered in his senior year at Timpview High School in Provo, Utah, was the most serious injury of his career, but the prospect of waiting another year to make his NFL debut was disappointing.
"He was frustrated, but you always talk about [how] sometimes you don't have control over things," said his father, Steve, the linebackers coach at BYU. "So what's your attitude like? How do you handle the chaos that comes from an injury? It's kind of like, how do you handle losing? We were just reminding him of the good things ahead that he could still look forward to once he did his part. But he was definitely frustrated. He wanted to be out there with his teammates and play, and he felt like he let his coaches down."
That irritation never bubbled to the surface publicly, according to teammates.
"If he was [depressed], he didn't show it," recalled Urban, who has endured his share of injuries, including a torn ACL and torn biceps in his first two training camps. "He's always a guy who is upbeat, positive, full of energy, which is a great trait, and that's what I admire of him. I didn't see it. I thought he had a great attitude the whole time."
Kaufusi said that while he was rehabilitating his ankle, he leaned on his wife, Hilary; his family back in Utah; and his Mormon faith for support.
"Injuries teach you a lot," he said. "They really make you appreciate every day that you have the ability to get up and run around the field. For me, I kind of took it as an opportunity to learn, and I definitely did. That's why I'm blessed to be out here today."
Kaufusi also credited a two-year mission trip to New Zealand when he was 19 for keeping him grounded. He spent 11 hours a day participating in community projects and sharing his faith with locals.
Kaufusi encountered some resistance, including from one resident who cursed at and spat on him. But he said many of the people in the community welcomed the work he and his fellow Mormons had done.
"For two years, you do that, and you talk to your family twice a year on the phone, and you write them once a week," he recalled. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but one of the things that changed my life forever and helped me become who I am today, because you really grow a lot in those two years."
Outside of his family and his faith, Kaufusi loves football. Despite not having been allowed to play until he was in the eighth grade, his excitement for the sport can sometimes go off the charts, according to his father. The elder Kaufusi joked that his son "probably couldn't sleep" the night before the preseason game against Washington.
"He's always been a high-energy kid," Steve Kaufusi said. "He's just fun that way. … He's just a guy who is really focused on what he's supposed to be doing, and he just wants to do his part and earn the respect of his teammates and earn the respect of the coaches. He's so excited to get out there and do what he's really good at."
That usually entails pressuring opposing quarterbacks and collecting sacks. Bronson Kaufusi scolded himself for missing two more possible sacks Thursday but said his first priority is being available for the team.
"I really want to just be able to get on the field as much as I can," he said. "So to go out there and make some plays, it was just a great feeling, a feeling of fulfillment and a feeling that makes you hungrier. So I'm excited to keep getting better."