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OWINGS MILLS — In the searing Georgia heat, during torturous summer workouts with Jamal Lewis, Ovie Mughelli envisioned himself making a groundswell change. Mughelli wanted to establish himself as a legitimate NFL starter capable of being more than a special-teams standout. Plus, he wanted to defy the one-dimensional stereotype about traditional, blocking, knuckle-scarred fullbacks.
Consider the mission accomplished for the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ burly lead blocker. With surprising mobility for a 6-foot-1, 255-pound athlete, Mughelli has emerged as a reliable, secondary receiving and rushing option for the AFC North champions who reconvene for practice today at the team’s training complex to begin preparing for their divisional playoff game next weekend at M&T Bank Stadium.
â€œItâ€™s very gratifying,â€ Mughelli said. â€œI feel blessed and honored to have this opportunity given to me. I don’t want people to think I was arrogant or cocky because Iâ€™m not, but I knew I could help this team running the ball and catching the ball.
â€œLast year, I was wide open and I wasnâ€™t ever an option. Now, theyâ€™re using me to open things up for the running game and to pick up key first downs. It’s such a big difference from before."
Mughelli entered this season with three career receptions and no carries in five career starts. Now, he has registered a career-high 21 receptions for 182 yards, including two touchdown passes, along with 12 carries for 50 yards.
A former fourth-round draft pick who rushed for a dozen touchdowns as a Wake Forest senior, Mughelli laughed when asked if he had lobbied the coaching staff to go back and watch his college highlight tape.
In reality, itâ€™s just a case of a player proving himself just in time in the final year of his contract along with a shift in offensive philosophy.
â€œHeâ€™s proving he can do those little things on top of being a very physical, dominating lead blocker,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œThere are not a lot of them in this league, and heâ€™s clearly one of them. The athleticism you knew was always there when you see what he does on special teams.
â€œItâ€™s not a matter of just showing me. I can call all the plays I want for Ovie, but if the quarterbacks are not going to throw it to him and donâ€™t have faith in him.. But they do because heâ€™s worked very hard to show them: â€˜Yes, if you throw me the ball, I will catch it.â€™â€
That confidence grew slowly out of practice sessions where Mughelliâ€™s uniform pants were usually covered with grass stains and mud from diving for passes.
Mughelli doesn’t resemble a nifty pass-catcher, but has a 30-yard touchdown catch in a win over the Tennessee Titans under his belt. He posted a career-high four rushes for 21 yards, including a career-long 12-yard run, in a 27-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
â€œI worked my butt off on my agility, feet, speed and hands this summer to get rid of the stigma that I couldnâ€™t catch, and I was determined to show I wasnâ€™t only a blocker or a special-teams player,â€ Mughelli said. â€œIn practice, I would make sure I caught every single ball. Even the hard ones, I would dive for them and catch them. I wanted to show everyone I could do it."
Mughelli hasn’t shirked his primary duties, though. With Lewis rushing for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns, Mughelliâ€™s rapport with the former Pro Bowl runner and understanding of how to operate as his lead blocker has come a long way.
â€œFrom last year to this year, itâ€™s gone light years ahead in terms of knowing how to work together,â€ Mughelli said. â€œLast year was my first year working with Jamal, and it was very difficult to get a bead on him, how he reacts, how he reads things. Now, I understand. I could close my eyes and figure out what heâ€™s going to do.â€
With eight starts this season, Mughelliâ€™s increased role has coincided with Billick firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel after six games and assuming play-calling duties. Fassel had emphasized H-back schemes and favored fullback Justin Green, a former college tailback who was regarded as a more versatile prospect than Mughelli at the beginning of this season.
Fasselâ€™s firing and Billickâ€™s confidence in Mughelli have given his up-and-down career a major lift. In one more statement of his improvement, Mughelli caught a career-high five passes for 49 yards in a 19-7 win over the Buffalo Bills to close out the regular season.
â€œI look at it as more in terms of coach Billickâ€™s entrance than coach Fasselâ€™s departure as helping me,â€ Mughelli said. â€œBut youâ€™re right. It has helped me a lot and allowed me to show that I can do more than just block. I give a lot of thanks to coach Billick for saying, â€˜Letâ€™s give this guy a chance and see what he does with it.â€™"
NOTES: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive end Trevor Pryce received one vote apiece in balloting for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award claimed by Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor. â€¦ The Ravens tried out defensive tackle Rodney Thompson (North Dakota State), an undrafted rookie free agent formerly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland