Kyle Juszczyk vividly remembers the first full-contact practice of last year's training camp.
It wasn't pretty.
As a rookie working as a true lead blocker for the first time in his life, Juszczyk put on the pads and took a beating. He struggled to handle the oncoming pressure from defenders like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, and by the time he left the practice field he was bruised up and exhausted.
"The first day of pads last year – I joke around with Dennis [Pitta] and say that's the day I lost my job," Juszczyk joked after Wednesday's practice. "I think they brought in Vonta [Leach] the next day. That was brutal. I learned you can't block with your head."
The Ravens actually signed Leach – a veteran lead blocker – three days after that first padded practice, and he was the starting fullback all season. Juszczyk ended up playing special teams and saw just four snaps on offense.
But this year Juszczyk entered training camp as the expected starter, knowing that he still had to convince the coaches of his blocking ability.
"I knew the biggest thing for me was proving that I could be a lead blocker," Juszczyk said. "I know that the first day the pads were put on, all eyes were going to be on me in that sense. That's been my biggest focus for training camp – to show my physicality and the fact that I can lead block."
The Ravens are now five days into padded practices this year, and Juszyzk has been solid. He has played physical in the backfield and has done well opening up running lanes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
"I feel like I've taken a really big step in that department," he said. "I learned to use my hands, and how to positon myself in my blocks this year. I see a huge difference from last year."
Juszczyk, a fourth-round pick out of Harvard, had a steep learning curve as a rookie. He has operated as a hybrid H-back/tight end in college, and transitioning to a blocker was a total change.
After watching Leach last season, Juszczyk has made significant strides in that aspect of his game.
"I learned a lot of different things," Juszczyk said. "I learned that not every block has to be a crushing block. You can win a block by being in the right position. As long as the back can make a cut off your block, that's a good block. You don't necessarily have to drive them 10 yards back."
Juszczyk has come a long way in the blocking department, but his greatest strength may still be his versatility. He has great hands and can catch passes coming out of the backfield, and the Ravens have used him in a variety of ways during training camp.
"I've been impressed with Kyle. He's had an excellent offseason," Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "He's very athletic, he has good hands and he's a threat catching the ball. He's responded also to the dirty work, which is something he's going to have to do."
Juszczyk raved about Kubiak's system. The NFL as a whole is moving away from the role of traditional fullbacks, but Kubiak still uses lead blockers and also wants to get Juszczyk the ball through the air.
"I've had a couple of athletic guys [at fullback] in the past, and Kyle fits that mold, so it gives me the ability to move him around and do some things," Kubiak said.
The table is set for Juszczyk to make a big leap in his second NFL season. He will play a key part in improving the running game after last year's woes, and has a chance to be an X-factor for the offense.
"I expect to have a big year," Juszczyk said. "I feel like this is a great offense for me to do a lot of different things, catch a lot of balls. I expect to clear the way for Ray and Bernard to have a much better year in the running game. And as a team I'm so excited. I think our offense is going to be so improved from last year."