The absence of the Ravens' starting offensive line from much of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) hasn't left John Urschel or James Hurst pouting.
Urschel and Hurst have been running as starters at guard/center and left tackle, respectively, giving them valuable practice reps to improve against the first-team defense and show coaches what they've got.
At this point, being starters has become somewhat familiar to the sophomores. Due to injuries last year, Urschel started three regular-season games and Hurst started five. They started both of the Ravens' playoff games.
However, when left tackle Eugene Monroe, guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, and center Jeremy Zuttah (wrist) presumably return for mandatory minicamp next week, Urschel and Hurst know they'll be back with the second team. For now, their goal is to become super subs.
"My approach is to be the best backup at both guards and the center position," Urschel said. "I understand that I am a backup here. That's my role and there's something to be said for accepting your role.
"But I want to be a starting-caliber backup. We have a very talented interior offensive line, and I want to prepare myself and be talented enough that I could start on any other offensive line."
Urschel came to Baltimore as a fifth-round pick. He immediately impressed with his smarts (he's a math genius), and his brain and brawn carried over to the football field. The 6-foot-3, 308-pound Penn State product received positive grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF) in every game, and he dominated former veteran Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork in the playoffs.
Now Urschel feels more comfortable, particularly with his footwork and play responsibilities. He says he can spend less time thinking about what he's doing and more time focusing on the opponent and where potential blitzes may come from.
"Everything just feels like it's come together so much better this year," Urschel said. "I feel so much more at home. Things that were always on my mind last year have become second nature."
Urschel has added to his resume by practicing at center, a position he never played in college. He spent limited time there last season with just a few snaps in Tampa Bay and one against Tennessee. While Urschel said he's still a better guard than center, the added duties have gone over "extremely well."
"I've taken to it and I enjoy it. I'm significantly better at center than last year," Urschel said. "You make your calls, you have to be sharp mentally, and then once the mental aspect is out of it, it's a lot easier than guard."
Hurst was an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina last year. A knee injury to Monroe, whom the Ravens signed to a long-term contract last offseason, would have seemingly been a crushing blow, but Hurst stepped in and did the job. It's a very difficult position to begin with, let alone for an undrafted rookie.
"Just going from the first start, to the first road game, to the Browns game at the end of the season – which we had to win and had more pressure than the playoffs – every single game it seemed like there was something added to it to make it a bigger deal and environment," Hurst said. "Now I have those under my belt and I'm a lot more comfortable."
Hurst said his technique has greatly improved since his rookie season. There was a learning curve when facing top-notch technique from veterans such as the Steelers' James Harrison. Hurst also says he's a lot more comfortable with the offense.
"My mindset is that I'm going to work as hard as I can and improve as much as I can," he said. "Whatever that means to the team, that's what it means. I'm going to be a player that they need me to be."