The State of the Fullback

A look at the fullback position across the high school, college and professional levels in North Texas.

 Jonny Auping

If you wanted to find an area that’s laden with football talent, knowledge and enthusiasm bordering on obsession then you would be hard pressed to come up with a better candidate than North Texas.

As far back as 60 years ago all the way until now, the upper half of the largest representative in the continental United States has been a hot bed for football at every level from small-town high schools to the emergence (or reemergence) of football programs at universities like TCU, SMU and Baylor all the way to the Dallas Cowboys, affectionately (or sarcastically by some) referred to as “America’s Team.”

But it’s not just any type of football that North Texas had a reputation for embracing. In the yesteryear of the Dallas-Fort Worth area (and just about anywhere within a 2-hour driving distance of it) football was appreciated as a physical, tough-nosed, hard-hitting sport. It was the way the game was supposed to be played.

The position that most embodies that physicality (along with perhaps the linebacker) has always been the fullback. It’s a position with a number of responsibilities, but none more important than blocking for the running back lined up behind him. Get yourself a little head of steam, find a linebacker (you know, that other really physical position) or safety and try to knock him down and clear a running path.

It’s always been a thankless position, but one that’s gotten its fair share of respect and gratitude in the Lone Star state. There was Daryl “Moose” Johnston contributing to Dallas Cowboy Super Bowls in the nineties. Before that Robert Newhouse was running and blocking for the University of Houston before joining the Dallas Cowboys in the seventies and paving the way (literally) for Tony Dorsett. And of course there’s Tim Riggins, who when he wasn’t busy stealing his paralyzed best friend’s girlfriend or fighting the first stages of alcoholism, served as the fullback for the Dillon Panthers on the first few seasons of the fictional show Friday Night Lights.

They all represented the “Shut up and hit somebody” style of football.

While that football obsession remains all over North Texas, times still change. And the game changes along with them. There’s still a lot of physicality in the sport, there’s no doubt about that. But offensive trends in high school and college programs have transformed how the game is being played across the country and North Texas is no different.

High schools all over are implementing spread offenses or read options; offenses that in the past were considered to be more of “gimmick” schemes are now becoming the norm. Many high school programs are trying to find the quickest and most efficient ways to put points on the board. Programs like SMU and Baylor are bursting back on to the scene with offensive game plans that revolve around speed and elusiveness. Even on the pro level, any Dallas Cowboy fan will tell you that the team had much more success this past season when they put less emphasis on the run game and let Tony Romo air it out.

You might say that “Shut up and hit somebody,” has become “Shut up and dodge somebody.”

Lost in these growing trends that seem to be taking American football by storm is the once coveted fullback position. Some argue that football is played at a different speed than it was in decades past. Some of those same people might suggest that the fullback is a position on its way to extinction. It seems like a radical argument, but it’s one that it is difficult to completely disprove. In a sport becoming more reliant on speed and a team’s quick-strike ability, what will happen to the 245-pound bruiser who is put on the field to help produce a five or six-yard run?

If you’re an outsider quick to dismiss the self-proclaimed wonder of high school football in Texas as simply clichéd hyperbole then a trip down to Allen, Texas just might go a long way towards changing your mind.

Allen is a suburb of Dallas and has a population of just over 80,000. It’s pretty safe to say that the hometown of former Dallas Cowboy great Tony Dorsett is full of people who enjoy their football. So much so that Allen High School made national headlines last summer by constructing a football stadium that cost roughly $60 million to build. The stadium holds 18,000 seats (about 20 percent of the city’s population) and is the largest high school stadium in the country that is intended for only one team.

A city doesn’t spend $60 million on a stadium to house an average football team. Coach Tom Westerberg who has coached at Allen for 12 years (nine as the head coach) is well aware of that.

Westerberg is not employed and critiqued by an entire city for his ability to maintain a traditional notion of hard-nosed football within his program. No, his job is measured by wins and losses.

Blessed with a mobile and talented young quarterback named Kyle Murray and a speedy running back named Marcus Ward, Westerberg successfully used what is often referred to as a read option for many of the Eagles’ plays last season.

A read option is typically run with the quarterback receiving the ball out of the shotgun and one running back usually lined up next to him. The formation allows the quarterback to take advantage of his own running ability and in most cases asks him to stick the ball into the chest of the running back and either let go of it (allowing the running back to run with it one direction) or pull the ball back and run with it himself in the other direction (often fooling the defense into thinking the running back still has the ball). If run successfully it often forces the defense to commit to either the quarterback or running back and opens up running space for the other if they choose incorrectly. It’s an offense that is implemented widely in the college game as well. In fact, many quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Collin Kapernick have proven to be so successful running it that the read option is being implemented into NFL offenses as well.

Westerberg explained that Allen incorporates more than just the read option and often use a type of spread offense that allows them to move the ball quickly through the air. The spread offense usually implements as many as four receivers, or in Allen’s case, additional tight ends serving as receiving options.

Both offensive schemes have one thing in common: they don’t leave room for the traditional fullback. His spot on the field is usually taken by an additional receiver or a tight end.

There used to be a philosophy that in order to win in the game of football you had to be able to run it down your opponent’s throat. Even when the opposing defense knows that’s what you’re planning on doing it’s still exactly what you had to do. It’s how you intimidate and defeat a team. That style of football is where the fullback thrives. On the other hand, the run game within the read option or spread offense involves a certain amount of, if not trickery, then at least unexpectedness.

Westerberg and Allen High School executed their offense all the way to the Texas 5A Division I State Championships in the first year of their newsworthy stadium defeating Lamar (Houston) 35-21. Sports Illustrated ranked them as the fifth best high school team in the nation. It was the second State Championship Allen has won under Westerberg, the first coming in 2008.

Allen is one of many of the nation’s top high school programs that implement schemes similar to the spread offense. It’s arguably even more prominent at the college level. However, despite his own success orchestrating these types of schemes, Westerberg is hesitant to anoint them as the only way to do things.

“It might be trending in that direction at these levels, but I think it might swing back,” Westerberg said. “Teams might start running it in the traditional sense more than the common team does now and when that’s successful for somebody you might see it more.”

Westerberg’s reasoning comes from the fact that a good high school coach should not be dead set on a certain system or scheme. You can’t be stubborn and expect your players to mold for you in every way.

“In high school you base it off of the personnel you have if you want to be successful. You don’t plan your offense regardless of the type of players you have. If we bring in a player from JV who can do a certain thing really well then we have to figure out how he can do that for us.”

This is why there are so many trends in high school football. It’s easy to say ‘so-and-so is having success doing something, we should do that too,’ but the fact of the matter is that teenage kids come in all different shapes and sizes and they bring different skill sets to the table. Westerberg puts it more simply.

“In high school you don’t recruit like you do in college. You can’t tailor your players to fit your plans.”

In one sense this might be a positive note for fans of the fullback position. As Westerberg explains, trends come and go in the high school game. You just have to work with what falls in your lap.

But it also begs the question of why so few potential fullbacks are falling into coaches’ laps. One might argue that it’s actually pretty simple: It’s a lot easier to come across a kid who is really fast and willing to learn how to catch touchdown passes than it is to find a big kid pushing 200 pounds and willing to spend every day in the weight room so that he can help someone else score touchdowns.

When I asked Westerburg if he thought the fullback position, as we have known it, would exist in 10 or 15 years he took a long pause as if briefly acknowledging the possibility that it wouldn’t.

“It depends on what level you’re talking about. I don’t see NFL teams doing away with it. There are a lot of NFL teams that really rely on running out of the two-back formation in certain situations. Its role seems to be declining, but I don’t think it will phase all the way out.”

That vague response seems to be fitting for the uncertain future of the position. I provided Westerberg with a specific hypothetical: If he knew a 15-year old sophomore, perhaps a family friend who he wasn’t coaching, and the young man wanted to earn a college football scholarship. He played fullback. What would Westerberg tell him? Could he earn the attention of college scouts or would he have to learn to play other positions as well?

Westerberg responded to the question in a way that implied that he wasn’t qualified to answer it, despite being a successful high school coach who has likely dealt with his fair share of college recruiters. Finally he provided his best judgment.

“I think there is a possibility for it. People are using the position in a lot of different ways. If you’re able to adjust and do new things that are asked of you then you’ll always have a shot if you’re an exceptional player.”

What Westerberg then added could very well be seen as many people’s view on the traditional role of the fullback position in general, not just his response to my hypothetical situation.

“I wouldn’t necessarily advise it,” Westerberg said of trying to get a football scholarship while playing only fullback in high school. “But I wouldn’t rule it out either.”

A little less than 30 miles away from Allen’s state of the art stadium is the campus of Southern Methodist University. Once a football powerhouse in the late seventies and early eighties, the team was found guilty of violating numerous NCAA sanctions and received what became known as the “Death Penalty,” the strongest punishment administered in college football.

The result was 20 years of football irrelevance. Finally, the Mustangs hired Hawaii’s innovative coach, June Jones and in five years he has turned the program around. After years of atrocious seasons and few wins, Jones provided SMU with something they weren’t used to: success. This past year the Mustangs beat Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl.

Jones rejuvenated the program by implementing his patent “Run N’ Shoot” offense, which is a specific variation on the spread offense. The offense exclusively utilizes four wide receivers in every single play. There is only one back lined up next the quarterback on any given possession. The fullback is not only underused in this offense, it flat out doesn’t exist. The running back is left to play a huge role.

For most of the past four years, that running back for SMU has been Zach Line.

Line didn’t receive a lot of attention from college recruiters out of high school in Oxford, Mississippi where he played both sides of the ball. But Jones liked the physicality and strength of the young man and decided to bring him to the team as a linebacker.

Quickly, the coaching staff realized they could make use of him as a backup running back in passing situations, especially when they needed someone to provide some extra blocking for the quarterback. The next season he was the starting running back and he went on to record no less than 1,200 yards rushing each of the next three seasons and totaled 47 touchdowns on the ground in his career. Line established himself as one of the best running backs in the nation in his four seasons and put up the type of production that even former SMU running backs like Craig James and Eric Dickerson could be impressed with.

 Now Line is hoping to take his skills to the professional level. In an ironic twist, despite the fact that Line achieved more success than most would have imagined in Jones’ system, which completely disregards the fullback position, he is now facing the possibility of having to convert to fullback to make it to the NFL.

At 6’1 and 230 pounds, Line doesn’t fit the mold for the typical NFL running back. Big, power backs are not exactly over-utilized in the league unless they have blinding speed to go along with it.

Line was training in Florida when I talked him for this story. He was focused on pursing his dream and he was already in the mindset of marketing his football abilities. When the topic of positions came up he quickly responded with the perfect answer.

“I’m a football player,” Line said. “I go where the coaches tell me.”

The question is, where will NFL coaches tell him to go? Is it in Line’s best interest to market himself as a fullback, abandoning a lot of the responsibilities he thrived at in Jones’ “Run N’ Shoot” for a position that seems to be slowly losing prominence in football circles around the country?

The answer might simply be, yes, that would be in Line’s best interest. Looking through most of the respected publications ranking the top running back prospects for April’s NFL draft, you won’t find a list that ranks Line any higher than the 25th ranked prospect, which would leave him in jeopardy of not getting drafted. On the other hand, WalterFootball.com is one of the sites that list Line as a fullback prospect. Not only that, but they rank him as the number one overall fullback prospect in the draft.

Line claims that he would welcome the change. In fact, change has never been an issue for him on the football field. In high school, he ran the ball out of the typical i-formation, which is the traditional formation that lines a fullback and a running back behind the quarterback and typically the fullback blocks for the running back.

“Coach Jones’ offense was completely new to me,” Line said. “It places a lot of importance on the running back. He’s a huge part of the blocking scheme. There’s a running back out there pretty much all the time.”

Line says that he has been talking to various NFL experts and he has heard different assessments of his game. Some have told him that his size and skillset would make for a great transition into playing the fullback position. Others have expressed that there is no reason that he cannot continue to do the things he’s done in college at the pro level.

“I’m a versatile guy. I can catch. I can block. I can do what are asked of both positions. I’m a bigger back so (switching to fullback) is an obvious possibility.”

Line and I talked about the success of Jones’ spread offense and he told me that he believed that it was certainly a trend taking football by storm and that he has noticed it being implemented in the NFL as well. I decided to pose the same hypothetical I asked of Westerberg. Could a 15-year old fullback get recruited by a big time program?

“That’s a tough question,” replied Line. “I wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school but I’ve had great success in college from being able to play numerous positions…If you’re meant to play college football then I think you’ll make it there. You’ll get noticed if you are having success in the position your coach puts you in.”

I decided to ask one more hypothetical of Line: Assume that an NFL team with an established running back (or perhaps two) decides to draft you. After three years of being the man on campus at SMU scoring touchdowns and running the ball would you be able to embrace the less heralded role of primary blocker?

“I would absolutely embrace it. If there’s a situation where a team had two great running backs and I get the opportunity to block for them and help the offense move the ball that’s good for me….You can make a name for yourself as a player as a fullback. And I could see myself wanting to be the best fullback in the league.”

Lawrence Vickers is proof that a player can make a name for himself as a fullback. Currently the starting fullback for the Dallas Cowboys, Vickers has been in the NFL for seven years. And he has continued to find teams willing to employ him for his ability to help others succeed. In fact, Vickers had only three carries last season. In seven years in the NFL he has carried the ball only 37 times.

But if you go far enough down Vickers’ timeline you’ll find out that he was quite the running back in his days at Forest Brook High School in Houston. Scoring touchdowns and accumulating statistics was a normal thing for Vickers back in high school. His accomplishments led him to the University of Colorado.

When he showed up to campus, then CU running back coach Eric Bieniemy – a former All-American at CU who had an eight-year NFL career – approached him. Bieniemy quickly assessed Vickers’ size and skill set and asked him to convert to fullback. He told Vickers that he could be a good running back, but that he could be a great fullback. He explained to him that he could eventually make it to the NFL as a fullback.

“I chose great over good,” Vickers said.

Vickers claimed that he quickly learned to appreciate the role that he was playing and how it was contributing to the team’s overall goals.

“When you’re apart of something where you’re helping others be successful that means you’re an unselfish person. I wanted that to be known, that I was a total team player.”

After about ten minutes, I decided to ask Vickers the question that had been on my mind, the main reason that I wanted to talk to him. Vickers is an intense guy. He fits the Ray Lewis-persona – very opinionated and tough to disagree with once he gets going. But after talking about his past and the success he’s had in the NFL I thought that maybe I had buttered him up enough to get to the point.

‘Lawrence, there are a lot of people out there that would say the fullback position is becoming less prominent and might even be on its way to extinctio….”

He cut me off before I could finish.

“I don’t believe that,” Vickers said definitively.

He then went on to make his case.

“Look at the playoffs. It’s cold. Everybody’s body is banged up. The teams in the playoffs are taking advantage of that. It’s always physical in the NFL. Everybody in the playoffs runs the ball. Having a good fullback gives you an advantage.”

Vickers makes a strong case. It would be unfair to treat it as coincidence that the two teams that faced each other in February’s Super Bowl both implemented the use of a fullback with a lot of success.

The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens’ Vonta Leach is considered by many to be the best fullback in the NFL. At 260 pounds, he is usually put on the field for one reason: to line up and hit somebody before they have the chance to get to Ravens’ running backs Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce.

While Vickers makes good points about the fullback position being utilized in the playoffs, how would he respond to the undeniable trend of new offenses that insert more weapons and leave the fullback off the field?

He claims that versatility is the key to avoiding being phased out.

“A tight end is your competition (if you’re a fullback),” Vickers said. “But that’s why you have to learn to catch and be versatile. The fullback isn’t becoming extinct. It’s just that they are going to have to be able to do a lot of things. I want to play all the time. I want to play on third downs. That’s why I learn to do as many things as I can so there’s no scenario where I can’t be helpful.”

It’s easier to draw from that versatility if you have experience playing a different position like Vickers did at running back or Line had at linebacker and running back. Vickers also pointed out that the Seattle Seahawks’ starting fullback, Michael Robinson, played quarterback at Penn State, another example of the versatility of the modern fullback.

Since he seems to have a response to everything, I ask Vickers about the teams that tend to line up with only a running back in the backfield and still have success running the ball.

“I’m not saying the tailback can’t run on his own,’’ Vickers said. “He can. But it’s like having a personal bodyguard. Who wouldn’t want a bodyguard? I wear the defense down. So those three or four-yard gains in the first half become five or six-yard gains in the second half.”

Vickers’ point can once again be proven by results from this past NFL season. The Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson had spent most of his college and NFL career running out of a single-back formation without the help of a fullback and has said in the past that he prefers that style.

This season the Vikings inserted Jerome Felton  into the fullback position in a higher percentage of plays to help clear the way for Peterson. The results were undeniable. Peterson had arguably the best rushing season in the history of the NFL coming just nine yards short of the single season rushing record.

So finally I provided Vickers with a similar hypothetical that was asked of Westerberg and Line about a young high school kid trying to get recruited as a fullback. Vickers was the quickest to respond and provided perhaps the most unexpected answer.

“I don’t think I could have done it,” Vickers said. “Man, I was scoring touchdowns and all that in high school. No football player doesn’t want the ball in his hands.”

But as time went on Vickers understood the value of the fullback. He claims that the higher level you’re playing at (college and the NFL) the more people notice the little things. It’s not just about who’s scoring the touchdowns to the people writing the checks, it’s about who’s making them happen.

Not to mention, it was after his conversion that he realized his favorite aspect of the position.

“The contact part. You can’t shy away from the contact part. A lot of people in football like contact, but when you’re a fullback people know that about you.”

The future of the fullback position is uncertain to say the least. The responsibilities of the position seem to be expanding and it’s becoming harder and harder to find someone who meets the traditional expectations of a fullback. Many coaches at the high school and college levels (like Westerberg and Jones) are doing just fine without one. And you can expect newly hired Eagles’ head coach, and guru of the spread offense, Chip Kelly will attempt to succeed in the NFL without utilizing a fullback.

But while the position seems to be caught somewhere in between traditional hard-nosed football and innovative and trendy offenses, Vickers could confidently confirm one thing about fullbacks.

“We’re always going to be needed.”

Only time will tell if he’s right.

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