Kragthorpe: Ex-Ute Paul Kruger becoming force for Ravens
Paul Kruger's University of Utah coaches always wondered what he might have become in his fourth year in the program. The answer is being played out in Baltimore.
In his fourth season with the Ravens, Kruger has developed into a pass-rushing force. The linebacker was involved in all three sacks of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck in an AFC playoff victory Sunday, highlighted by a strip leading to Baltimore's fumble recovery.
Kruger always did have a knack for timing. As a Ute sophomore, he produced one of his big-impact games in the win over BYU that sent the Utes to the Sugar Bowl and followed with a solid performance in the upset of Alabama, positioning him as an eventual second-round draft choice.
And now that he's about to become a free agent, Kruger's emergence is even more rewarding. "That dude is making money, man," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard told the team's website.
It took him most of four seasons to truly find a home in the Ravens' lineup and become consistently productive, but it's happening now. Kruger led the team with nine sacks in the regular season, tying a franchise record with at least one sack in five straight games. That makes his $615,000 salary a bargain.
Fueled by the emotion of playing alongside Ray Lewis in the legendary linebacker's final home game, Kruger accelerated his pass-rushing ability in the playoff game. Now comes a much more difficult assignment: chasing Peyton Manning.
The Broncos' quarterback absorbed only 21 sacks in the regular season, the second-fewest in the NFL. Kruger will have to be quicker and stronger than ever to put any pressure on Manning and give the Ravens a chance of advancing beyond Saturday's divisional playoff game in Denver.
At the very least, Kruger will make Broncos left guard Zane Beadles, his former Ute teammate, and the rest of the offensive line account for him on every passing play.
Kruger's pro success reinforces what a phenomenal defense the Utes fielded in 2008. Kruger and teammates Stevenson Sylvester, Sean Smith, R.J. Stanford, Koa Misi, Robert Johnson, Brice McCain and Derrick Shelby all have made NFL rosters. No wonder the Utes beat Alabama.
As Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, then the team's linebackers coach, said, "You should have one of the best defenses in the country, shouldn't you?"
Kruger has gone on to become one of the most successful quarterbacks the Utes ever recruited. Former coach Urban Meyer signed him as a QB from Timpanogos High School in Orem, then Kyle Whittingham moved Kruger to defense when he returned from a church mission.
Having played quarterback, "His knowledge of offensive football is a huge plus for him," Sitake said.
Because of the mission, Kruger was eligible for the NFL Draft following his sophomore season. While leaving school at that time seemed somewhat risky, the Ravens validated his decision in the second round.
Kruger's development came in spurts, with a total of 6.5 sacks in three seasons as he played various positions. In the middle of 2012, he found his spot as a right outside linebacker, freeing him to rush the passer.
Utah's coaches "knew there were going to be really good times to come" with Kruger, Sitake said. Whittingham pitched the idea that all three Kruger brothers could play together on Utah's defensive line in 2010, but Paul was ready to leave after '08.
Dave has finished his four-year career and Joe is entering the NFL Draft after his junior year. Next summer, the Krugers (plus Oakland offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom, their brother-in-law) will be in NFL training camps.
None of the brothers knows where he'll end up, exactly including Paul. But he'll be very well-paid, regardless.