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Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk says role hasn't changed, but he seeks more catches

Kyle Juszczyk bolted out of his three-point stance in the backfield and motioned out as a receiver during a June minicamp.

When the ball was snapped, he ran a crisp pattern over the middle, froze a linebacker with a quick cut and then, without breaking stride, smoothly caught a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco for a first down.

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The sequence served as a reminder of the Ravens fullback's versatility and showed how he might be used in new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's offense.

Following a season in which he primarily served as a lead blocker for running back Justin Forsett, who rushed for a career-high 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns, Juszczyk — and other Ravens veterans — will report to training camp on Wednesday with designs on catching more passes this season.

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The former Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year caught 19 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown last season in 16 games, including 14 starts. He caught 125 career passes for 1,576 passes and 22 touchdowns at Harvard.

"It's a lot of similar stuff that I did last year," Juszczyk said following a June practice. "I'm going in motion, running some routes out of the backfield and even split out wide. My role hasn't changed much."

An athletic, 6-foot-1, 248-pound hybrid who played tight end, H-back and slot receiver in college, Juszczyk's approach contrasts with the man he replaced, former Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach. Leach was more of a throwback battering ram, whereas Juszczyk's blocking relies on positioning and technique.

"I think we see in practice every day that Kyle has a lot of different kinds of abilities," Trestman said last month. "He has an outstanding feel, obviously, as a lead blocker in the run game, but he's also a more-than-sufficient pass receiver in the flats and running routes. Smart guy, obviously.

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"We can move him around and create problems defensively, because when you have a fullback who can line up outside and do different things, you can certainly get coverage declarations, and you can keep teams off balance. This offense has done that in the past. That won't change in terms of using Kyle in that manner, both lining up in the backfield and being outside."

Juszczyk devoted his offseason to getting stronger without adding much, if any, bulk.

"Last year, I felt like I did a good job of getting on my blocks," Juszczyk said. "This year, I'm looking to expand on that and kind of drive guys out of the hole and make it a lot easier for the guys behind me to make their reads and cuts. Even if it's just an inch or two, to drive that guy back it's easier for them to make the read and get those extra yards."

Trestman is maintaining former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's highly successful zone blocking system and the Ravens return the same starting backfield in Forsett and Juszczyk, plus last year's starting offensive line.

"I love this offense, man," Juszczyk said. "It's been a pretty smooth transition from last year, especially for myself as a fullback. The run game is identical. I loved it last year, so I love it this year also."

Juszczyk caught four passes for 29 yards during the Ravens' AFC divisional-round playoff loss to the New England Patriots and had six receptions in the postseason. He also had a fumble against New England and two lost fumbles during the regular season.

The fumbles typically came when Juszczyk struggled through attempted tackles for extra yards or jumped to try to pick up extra yards. Juszczyk said he had not fumbled at any level of football until last season.

"It's more annoying than anything," Juszczyk said. "Basically, the coaches told me to play smart."

Intelligence and athleticism are at the heart of Juszczyk's game, which was highlighted during the Ohio native's first start against his hometown Cleveland Browns. He caught three passes for 54 yards and his lone NFL touchdown last September in front of a large contingent of family and friends.

Although Juszczyk entered the NFL with impressive measurables — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.71 seconds, registered a 37-inch vertical leap and bench-pressed 225 pounds 24 times at Harvard's Pro Day — he felt the need to make some physical improvements.

He cut his body-fat percentage almost in half, ending his rookie season with 18 percent body fat, and is down to 10 percent heading into this season.

"Juszczyk is just one of those solid guys," left guard Kelechi Osemele said last month. "Pretty much any system you put him in, he's going to be successful. He's a really smart guy, he picks things up fast and, he's just been doing what he does best.

"He's a strong guy; he's been lifting. He's always in the weight room. He's always trying to be cutting edge as far as his training methods. He's book-smart and he studies the plays. So, he's just going to be one of those guys for years to come that's going to be a great player for us."

Entering the third year of a four-year, $2.46 million contract, Juszczyk is hoping to double his receptions from last season. Ideally, he'd like to average at least two catches per game. It's possible he could be used as an extra tight end or H-back. But he didn't come close to the 40-to-50 receptions that Kubiak predicted for him before last season — he was targeted just 27 times.

"There are a lot of plays where a short route to the flat to a running back are first reads for Joe," Juszczyk said. "Last year, it wasn't most of the time. Joe gets it out to you quick and on time. You just have to catch the ball and run. I get the feeling there could be more of those kind of plays for me."

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