Last year, Ravens second-round draft pick Paul Kruger!(/team/roster/paul-kruger/d6013bc5-bbca-4db7-b10e-fcc177f1c83f/ "Paul Kruger") made one of the most athletic plays a defensive lineman could ever make; despite recently recovering from a stab wound.
Playing in a rivalry game against BYU, one that Kruger's Utah Utes won 48-24, the 265-pound defensive end basically iced the game for his team.
The Cougars had pulled to within 27-24 on quarterback Max Hall's 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and then forced a punt to get the ball right back.
But on the next possession, Kruger faked a pass rush and dropped back into coverage - not an easy task for such a hefty player - and intercepted Hall over the middle, taking off towards the end zone.
"That was such a tremendous play, one of the best I've ever seen from a guy like that," said former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who is now Utah State's head coach. "He came out of nowhere to grab that ball."
What made this play even more amazing, however, was that months earlier there was doubt as to whether Kruger would ever play football again.
Already dealing with only one kidney and no spleen after a Jeep Wrangler rolled onto him during a routine joyride when he was 13 years old (a situation that has been well-documented), Kruger found himself in even more dire circumstances that previous offseason.
Hosting his brother Dave, now a Utah defensive lineman, on a recruiting trip at a house party, Paul Kruger, Dave and some other friends were assaulted by gang members, a group that outnumbered them nearly 15 to 5 from Kruger's estimates.
Kruger was stabbed twice, an attack that resulted in a giant gash that exposed his intestines, nicked an artery and collapsed a lung.
After days in the hospital, 50 stitches and 20 pounds lost, Kruger had to make a decision about the rest of his career. There was no doubt he was returning to the football field.
He played cautiously at first, easing into practices at the behest of his coaches and, of course, his better judgment. Perhaps the impressive scar crossing his stomach served as a constant reminder of the attack.
His coaches were impressed as how quickly he bounced back.
"He really had to fight to get out there," explained Andersen. "He knew he wasn't going to be as strong at first, but he persevered. That showed in the season he had for Utah last year. And, our guys really looked up to him because of that.
"I don't know how something like that can't affect you, but Paul's got such a strong character, that he didn't let it discourage him."
"You're a little hesitant any time something that serious happens," Kruger said. "I easily could have ripped open the scar and created a dangerous situation in my stomach. I just needed to get my strength back and let the scars heal strong. The main thing for me at that time was lifting and running. I wasn't really going to get hit or anything, so once that healed, I felt I was full speed.
A quick YouTube search of the Utah/BYU game, where he totaled six tackles - knocked down two passes and had his infamous interception - will show Ravens fans how athletic Kruger is, and prove he was able to bounce back.
It will also confirm that Ravens general manager **Ozzie Newsome** made the right move in bringing the versatile Kruger to Baltimore with the 57th-overall pick.
The Ravens are a team that simply puts the best athletes on their defense, and Kruger fits the bill.
He came to Utah as a successful high school quarterback, but was buried on the depth chart behind eventual first-overall selection Alex Smith.
Kruger then went on a two-year Latter Day Saints Church mission to the Midwest, roaming Kansas and Missouri to help spread the word through random good deeds, from chatting with locals about scriptures or helping out with everyday chores for the less-fortunate.
When he came back, Utah already had a quarterback in place, so Kruger tried his hand at tight end for a few weeks before Whittingham and Andersen approached him with a proposition.
They thought he should completely switch sides of the ball. Looking out for not only the best interests of the team, but also Kruger's NFL hopes, they persuaded him to try defensive end.
"Paul could have played three or four spots," Whittingham said. "He was a very good quarterback for us, played a little tight end. I could see him as a linebacker. His value for us and what we thought his future held was at defensive end.
"It was for our best interest and his, long term. It wasn't long before he arrived on campus that we had those discussions about switching sides of the ball."
It wasn't an easy transition, though.
For one thing, Kruger was just coming off his two-year hiatus from football. He needed to work even harder to get back into playing shape and acclimate himself to the speed of the game.
And just like most players that have been quarterbacks for most of their lives, the feeling of having the ball in your hands on every play was tough to relinquish.
Once he began feeling more comfortable with his role, understanding the effect a strong pass rush can have on the outcome of a game, Kruger grew into his role.
"I talked with Coach Andersen and [previous Utah head coach] Urban Meyer a lot about it at the time, and we looked at what my future could be in the NFL," said Kruger, who recorded 63 tackles and three sacks during his initial campaign as a defensive end. "As I grew into the position, it became more and more attractive to me, because I realized what kind of player I could be.
"Also, I didn't realize what an influence a defensive end can have on a game. It's a big responsibility. In the NFL, a good pass-rushing end can change the game in a heartbeat."
Just like Kruger did in the BYU game.
But that play was memorable for another reason as well, one Kruger would like to forget.
Even though there was nothing but Hall, a 200-pound quarterback, between Kruger and the end zone, Kruger still didn't manage to score and put the game away.
The Utes managed to hang six on the board a few plays later, but Kruger could have done it himself if not for tripping over his own feet and the outstretched hand of Hall at the 10-yard line.
It is a play the Utah native says he'll never forget, mostly because no one will let him.
"That's one that nobody in Utah will ever live down," he said with a laugh. "I remember reading his eyes and picking him off. I started running, but it felt like I was moving in slow motion. I saw him try to get after me, and I wanted to run him over, but for some reason I decided to juke him. It was late in the game and my legs got heavy, so I just didn't get there."
His teammates and coaches were playfully relentless.
"He put a nice move on the quarterback but the 10-yard line stripe jumped up and got him," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said with a laugh. "We showed that over and over again in the film room."
Kruger ended his collegiate career starting all 13 games for the Utes, posting 61 stops and 7.5 sacks.
Still, that was without a complete offseason, considering his unfortunate wounds.
Now, Kruger is going to have the first full offseason at defensive end of his life. No interruptions for a mission trip. No missed time because he was recovering in a hospital bed.
For Kruger, this spring and summer is all about football.
"I really need it," he said after a recent workout. "I'll be going against the best athletes in the world, and I want to prove myself. That's why I'm going to get paid. I want to show that I'm a hard worker and reliable, so I can perform on Sundays."
At this point, the Ravens are expecting Kruger to be a situational pass rusher for them, seeing time at end on third downs when **Trevor Pryce** moves to the point of the defensive line. Baltimore also envisions Kruger eventually bulking up to around 285 pounds and maybe even taking over Pryce's position if and when Pryce decides to retire.
If so, it wouldn't surprise anybody back home.
"I honestly believe his best days are in front of him," said Andersen. "He's only really had a year and a half at defensive end. It's scary what he could do with a full offseason and some NFL-level coaching.
"I think he's going to be fun to watch."
That is, as long as he's running over quarterbacks - not tripping over them.