OWINGS MILLS — Paul Kruger witnessed the master plying his trade as gritty outside linebacker Jarret Johnson put on textbook clinics of the leverage game.
Sleeves rolled up, fists balled up and always on the attack, Johnson aggressively set the edge for the Baltimore Ravens’ defense for nine years by using his body as a human wall to fend off blockers and stonewall running backs.
Now that Johnson is gone after signing a four-year, $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers, Kruger is primed to take over his friend and mentor’s old strongside linebacker job.
In order to win a competition over Albert McClellan or any rookie pass rusher the Ravens might draft, Kruger will need to do his best to emulate the hard-nosed style that Johnson embodies.
"You’ve got to be a tough guy," Kruger said Thursday at the Ravens’ training complex. "Jarret was just one of those guys that just had that pit bull in him to get in there, get it done and kind of sacrifice his body to do what was best for the team. So, that’s kind of a role I’m hoping to get real good at is sitting up on a tight end playing that outside ‘backer position.
"I do a lot of it at the rush position, rushing the passer and stuff, but it’s a little bit different. You’ve got to be willing to get in there and fight every play, be physical. That’s why I play the game, I love that stuff. I’m really looking forward to getting out there and playing first, second, third , fourth down instead of just on third. I’m pretty excited."
There’s legitimate reason for Kruger to be upbeat.
One year after operation as a situational pass rusher and recording a career-high 5 1/2 sacks, the Ravens are entrusting the former second-round draft pick with a potential full-time position.
"It’s a great opportunity for me," Kruger said. "I couldn’t ask to be in a better situation. I’m going to be grinding as much as I can from here until August to prepare myself for camp as much as possible. I’m real excited."
A former defensive end from Utah, Kruger has 27 career tackles, 6 1/2 sacks and one interception.
Kruger won’t simply be handed the assignment of succeeding Johnson, but the organization is confident in him due to his athleticism, size and how he handled getting knocked around initially at defensive end.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has grown significantly stronger in the weight room and has developed his repertoire of pass-rushing moves.
"I think Paul can do even more than what he did last year," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "A lot of people saw that Paul stepped his game up last year. Paul was like black and white to me. His rookie year, he was learning. Last year, it was like this is what they saw in Paul. That’s why they picked him up in the second round because Paul is that guy.
"I look for him and Albert to complete for that job. Double-J, that’s a big replacement. He was a big part of our defense. As Ozzie [Newsome] recruits, he’s always going to bring the next best thing in."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh proclaimed that Kruger was ready to take over for Johnson after watching all of his snaps from last season.
And Harbaugh informed Kruger of his assessment.
Now, Kruger is hoping to justify that faith and find a home at a permanent position after shuffling between defensive end and outside linebacker in the past.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Kruger said. "It gives you confidence and excitement for something coming up. It gives you an exact direction to go when you’re watching film. It’s been tough, I think a great learning experience to kind of bounce around. At the same time, it’s pretty exciting to have a solidified spot that you know they’re putting you into for the opportunity to take over."
QUESTION: Who will take Double-J’s old job in 2012, Paul Kruger or Albert McClellan?