Fullback Kyle Juszczyk will return home for Monday night's game against the Cleveland Browns with a growing role in the Ravens offense, established career highs in several categories and a renewed appreciation for the opportunity at hand.
The Ohio native's emergence in his third NFL season as one of the game's most effective fullbacks has coincided with loss both on and off the field. As the Ravens (3-7) have struggled to string together wins, Juszczyk is still coping with the death of one of his best friends: D.J. Monroe, a former Harvard teammate who died in a motorcycle crash in Florida in mid-October.
"It just reminds you how fragile life is and how lucky we are to be in the position we are in, especially myself, playing the sport I love and doing what I love every day," Juszczyk said. "It's been a different year. My stats are up, but our record is down, and I've had stuff off the field that wasn't going well. You just take it one day at a time, try to build on the positives and learn from the negatives."
Juszczyk, 24, spoke following Wednesday's practice, and a special teams meeting that required his attendance. The Thanksgiving holiday and his pending homecoming were hardly the only things on his mind.
He's long been a contributor on special teams, but with quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, and tight end Dennis Pitta all on injured reserve, Juszczyk's importance to the offense has never been greater.
That point was emphasized this week when Juszczyk surveyed the running backs meeting room and realized that he was the most veteran player there.
"You grow up fast with playing time. These past 2 ½ years, I feel I've gotten a pretty substantial amount of playing time. You're kind of forced to grow up. There's nothing better than the actual reps to learn what you're doing out there," Juszczyk said. "I definitely feel like one of the core guys, just because I'm involved with so many different things — first through third down now."
Despite playing just over 30 percent of the team's offensive snaps, Juszczyk is third among Ravens' active players with 26 receptions, seven more than his previous career high. He also has 206 receiving yards and two touchdowns, also career highs. Juszczyk was given even more responsibility in last week's 16-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams as he had his first two NFL carries for a total of 3 yards.
With Forsett out with a broken arm, the Ravens used Juszczyk in some one-back sets, largely because of his ability to pick up the blitz. That's a role he could keep going forward as new starting back Buck Allen's pass protection is a work in progress.
"For him to be able to get us out of a game like that — in a four-minute situation — and carry the football was really valuable for us, because you don't want to be in a situation where you don't have the ability to run the ball, but we [also] wanted to make sure we had pass protection taken care of there, too, and it's a strength for him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We don't want to run guys on and off the field and say, 'OK, he's a pass blocker. He's a ball carrier.' So, we just put the most versatile guy out there and let him do both."
The versatility is one thing the Ravens liked about Juszczyk coming out of the draft, when they selected him with a fourth-round pick. The traditional lead blocking fullback is mostly extinct in the pass-happy NFL, replaced by hybrid-type players who can block, catch, run and create mismatches.
At Harvard, Juszczyk showed all of those skills but was most effective as a receiver, catching 125 passes for 1,576 yards and 22 touchdowns over four seasons.
"He lined up at wide receiver at times, he lined up at slot receiver at times. And of course, he lined up at fullback and tight end. I think his ability in college to line up in the slot and at wide receiver really helped him in terms of his ability to transition and do a lot of things in the NFL," said Tim Murphy, the Crimson's longtime head coach. "You've got a lot of guys that are physical, guys that can catch the ball. But he can finish, he can run the football, he's great at finishing blocks. He's great at finishing plays on special teams. He's one of those guys that's not just versatile, he's extremely dependable."
Juszczyk leads all NFL fullbacks in receptions and receiving yards, and the 221 snaps that he's played rank fourth. That number figures to increase over the final six games if Juszczyk is used on third downs.
"You can see — in comparing and contrasting their offense from the first game — [that] he has become a bigger part of it and for good reason," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "They do a good job of using him outside of the role of the traditional fullback. He can do some things out of a one-back set that, like I said, are not necessarily that traditional. I have a lot of respect for him, and I think he's one of the better fullbacks in the league."
Juszczyk has done some of his best work against the Browns, scoring two of his three career NFL touchdowns against them. Out of all of the Ravens road games, the yearly trip to Cleveland is one that Juszczyk most looks forward to. His hometown of Medina is about 40 minutes south of FirstEnergy Stadium, and Juszczyk expects many of his friends and family members to be in attendance Monday night. That includes his brother, Brandon, who remains a diehard Browns fan.
The homecoming will give him a chance to reflect on what has been a productive season professionally, but a trying one personally.
Juszczyk and Monroe arrived at Harvard at the same time and they immediately hit it off. They worked out together, hung out on weekends and even had the same summer job as counselors at a local middle school.
"D.J. was one of my closest friends in the world — great teammate, great friend, great guy, just a great all-around person," Juszczyk said "For him to pass was just heartbreaking. Just something you never expect. This is a guy that you think would be around forever."
Juszczyk nicknamed Monroe, "The King of Swag," because of his friend's propensity for being nattily attired both on and off the field. Earlier this season, Juszczyk paid tribute to Monroe in the best way he knew how: he donned special-made Nike cleats with Monroe's name and number embroidered on them. The cleats were black, silver and gold — flashy, just like Monroe would have liked.
After the game, Juszczyk autographed the cleats and sent them and a note of support to Monroe's family.
"One of the reasons that Kyle was such a great leader on our team was people really knew he cared," Murphy said. "If you only have one word to sum up Kyle Juszczyk, which is challenging to do, I would say it's this: class."