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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 SMU at Maryland Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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The Fullback Isn’t Dead. And College Football Didn’t Kill It

“Fullbacks have suffered, in my opinion, the single greatest piece of misrepresentation in the history of sports and no one has ever been able to explain to me what happened.” - Army Tight Ends Coach Matt Drinkall

Fullbacks are a lot of things – smart, humble, a little bit insane. They are resourceful, versatile and respected. But most importantly, they are alive and well. The truth is that nobody achieves rushing yards alone.

Yet the greatest trick the modern football offense ever pulled was convincing fans that the fullback no longer exists.

Defenses got lighter, quarterbacks become more mobile and everybody had to be faster. Suddenly, it wasn’t about how hard you could hit but how fast you could get the ball into space.

And a position notorious for hat-on-hat contact didn’t appear to have a place in this new world.

“Fullbacks have suffered, in my opinion, the single greatest piece of misrepresentation in the history of sports,” claimed Army Tight Ends Coach Matt Drinkall. “And no one has ever been able to explain to me what happened.”

But the fullback didn’t die or disappear and college football definitely didn’t kill it. The rarely celebrated position just got a little lost in the shuffle.

The shift read like this – the quarterback moved back, the tailback moved to the side and the fullback moved forward and at an angle.

“Everyone in the backfield moved three steps,” insisted Drinkall. “Those three people all just shifted a little bit – quarterbacks are still called quarterbacks, running backs are still called running backs, but fullbacks - all of a sudden no one calls them fullbacks, they call them H-backs. I don’t know what the hell happened.”

Rich Rodriguez happened. Gus Malzahn happened. Evolution happened. And the position once believed to be a symbol of the game itself was facing a serious rebrand.

“Some people use fullback and H-back as interchangeable words for the same position but they’re not,” explained former Auburn and Houston Texan fullback Jay Prosch. “When I was at Illinois, I was used more in I-formation - traditional, straight downhill fullback, not much else besides blocking. That’s kind of my opinion of a fullback. Now an H-back, the whole mentality of that is you want speed in the game working with the spread – it’s a more versatile version of a fullback.”

Auburn v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

A rose by any other name though, right?

“You hear H-Back, you hear tight end, you hear flex, all those different positions that align off the wing, maybe off the tackle or right behind the guard but three yards up but because it’s not your traditional “I,” three-point-stance, hand-in-the-dirt and the average fan doesn’t process that as they are watching,” Kansas City Chiefs fullback Mike Burton explained. “I think that unless you study it or watch the tape and break it down and look at the scheme that there is a little bit of a misconception that fullbacks are not being used - he may not be lining up, hand-in-the-dirt but he’s doing fullback stuff.”

Indiana v Rutgers Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

College college football coaches have been utilizing the position’s versatility for years, with guys like Malzahn even insisting that the position was integral for a smooth transition from power to spread.

“My second-year coaching in college was at Tulsa - Todd Graham was the head coach and we had the No. 1 offense in the country two years in a row,” remembered Malzahn. “The fullback position was huge, Charles Clay, he was really our first guy. That was truly the first year we ran the hurry-up, no-huddle and we didn’t know how it would work in college.”

Taking in the moment of self-actualization, the UCF head coach chuckled to himself: “It worked out pretty good. But I will say this – those guys, the fullbacks, they were a big part of that.”

Tulsa may have been the trial run but Auburn was where Malzahn’s balanced offensive scheme blossomed and his use of fullbacks became widely celebrated.

“We believed in running the football which I think you have to do to win a championship,” said Malzahn. “And when we have won championships, we have been one of the best teams in college football to run the ball. But I think what you are seeing is the spread offenses and the craze in the last 10 years, the old-school fullback is kind of turned more into a pass-catching tight end.”

Malzahn’s words ring mostly true – many college football rosters boast fullbacks disguised as tight ends or linebackers that pull double duty like Baylor’s Dillon Doyle, Florida State’s DJ Lundy and Oregon State’s Jack Colletto. But why the camouflage?

“When kids hear ‘fullback,’ they don’t want to come play for you,” joked Butler head coach Mike Uremovich. “So, they are tight ends. But when we had two tight ends on the field, one of them is a fullback, he’s just lined up off-center and in the wing. But he’s doing the same thing and he’s coached the same way, it’s the same schemes these teams just don’t call them fullbacks. The stigma is, a lot of these kids want to say how many times they catch the ball and they want to be tight ends.”

So, when you see a 6-foot, 250-pound tight end on the roster, don’t be fooled.

“Now you don’t really see fullbacks getting handoffs, they get more dump passes or flat routes, stuff like that,” admitted Tennessee Titans fullback Tory Carter. “At LSU, sometimes I lined up as a Y-receiver but I wasn’t a tight end. I just got out there and blocked and ran my routes.”

In all fairness, science hasn’t quite figured out how to quantify the impact a fullback makes on the field. Because the reality is what they do can’t be contained within the lines of a stat sheet. Prosch even joked that when people googled his bio, the five catches for 95 yards during his 2013 senior season was enigmatic. Bring up stats and fullbacks laugh.

“I caught two passes the first game against Michigan and my stats were two receptions for zero yards,” quipped former Middle Tennessee fullback Dalton Frantz. “So, yeah the statistics don’t come along with the fullback but if you understand the position it’s more of the engagement - hitting the defensive end every single play, blocking somebody or getting out on a pass.”

Frantz was a walk-on linebacker at MTSU who wasn’t really competing for playing time and just wanted to find a way to contribute. So then-offensive coordinator Tony Franklin stepped in and flipped Frantz into a fullback. Franklin, who favored the spread and has coached great quarterbacks like Jared Goff, used Frantz to support the Blue Raiders running QB Asher O’Hara.

However you flip a fullback, their mission remains the same.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to be playing as hard and has fast as I can at all times because I’m a fullback – that’s what we do,” said Carter, who’s dad played fullback in the 80’s. “If the defense has to prepare for every package, that’s just more they have to think about and the slower they will play.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 LSU at Texas A&M Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And there it is - one of the best ways to define a fullback is by how difficult he makes life for the other team. That job has been redefined with the latest offensive redesign, and even Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez, credited with the implementation of the hurry-up offense at the college level in 1991 at Glenville State, had a difficult time finding the right kind of guy to compliment his speedy scheme.

“It wasn’t until I went to West Virginia and Owen Schmitt came along and he kind of gave us that dimension where we look like we are spread but he’s back there with Steve Slate and some of those fast tailbacks, so it looked like two backs but it really was a fullback and a tailback in a shotgun next to the quarterback,” explained Rodriguez. “He gave us a different dynamic where you ran some of the fullback isolation plays and the power plays. Because all of a sudden, we had a 245-pound guy that had tailback skills but with a fullback body and was willing to block – that was the trickiest thing, finding a guy that was willing to block.”

Proper blocking technique starts at an early age but some argue that high schools aren’t featuring fullbacks, so young players just aren’t learning the position anymore.

“A lot of times, the old school high school teams whether they are Wing-T or Wing-I or Pro-I make it easier to identify and recruit fullbacks because so many high school teams are going to that tight end, pass-catching guy and getting away from the hit-in-the-mouth guy,” said Malzahn.

Pittsford Sutherland High School in Monroe County in upstate New York is one of those high school’s college football coaches, like Malzahn go to find fullbacks. Keith Molinich has been the head varsity football coach of the Panthers for 15 years and is a former fullback himself.

“We are so versatile on offense – we go out of gun, pistol, under, we direct snap to a fullback, and we definitely call them fullbacks,” said Molinich. “Every team, if you have 50 guys, you are going to find some humble warrior that just wants to smash people.”

This supports the theory that fullbacks are not born - they are made. But how do you identify a potential fullback in the wild?

“We usually look for a body type - we want that thicker, shorter guy and a guy who really studies football, truly enjoys the game,” explained Molinich, whose three sons also played fullback. “A lot of them are that inside linebacker-type kid and usually those kids are the coach on the field. They know all the blocking schemes.”

It is likely that every one of those high school kids has some sort of dream of playing the game they love at the highest level. And there have been many great fullbacks over the years for young players to study and model their play after. To say that the fullback is a dying breed now, when the position has more visibility than ever thanks to the creation of the Fullback Assist statistic and brands like Make Fullbacks Great Again, is to be part of the misrepresentation problem.

“If you look at the top-5, almost top-10 teams in the NFL – they all have a fullback,” said Atlanta Falcons fullback Keith Smith. “We had two fullbacks in Superbowl LIV. It’s not a dying position. And people are starting to understand how much a fullback can accentuate an offense, especially when you have a good one that’s not afraid to put their head down.”

He’s right – 63 percent of NFL teams carry a fullback with 22 guys listed at the position across all rosters. In college, it’s less. 20 FBS and 21 FCS teams each carry fullbacks for a total of 89 Division 1 fullbacks.

Smith created the MFGA brand to unite these players who live and breathe the position. But he also uses it to pay tribute to the greats that paved the way.

“A big part of the brand is just kind of paying homage and paying respect to all those older fullbacks, Mike Alstott, Tom Rathman, Lorenzo Neal and Sam Gash – just all those former smashmouth football dudes who paved the way for us,” said Smith. “We’ve kind of banded together as a ‘fullback fraternity’ – the fraternity within the fraternity. We are making sure we never let the position dissipate like everybody says it is.”

NFL: SEP 12 Eagles at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Smith’s efforts have been met with a deep gratitude. In fact, this story started when Carter showed up at the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship media day sporting one of Smith’s hats.

“That’s what I’ve been working for my whole life is to be able to get in that fraternity,” confirmed Carter.

Fullbacks are self-starters and independent studies – the freelancers of the football world. But they are also low-key, destined for a life outside of the spotlight.

“They are essentially like offensive lineman but they get even less love because they are not part of a group of five guys and they are not skill kids because they don’t touch the ball very often – they’re like this lonely island of people whose only objective is to help out all of their other teammates,” said Drinkall. “There will never be articles written about them, other than this one, they’re not on Sportscenter, they don’t get interviewed and they don’t really have their own unit to connect with.”

While the lack of recognition is preferable for most fullbacks, it has unjustly contributed to the vicious rumors of extinction.

“I think that if you were to talk to everybody, it’s not that they don’t like the limelight, they just like doing their task off to the side,” shared former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston. “They don’t need everybody to congratulate them, to pat them on the back. They’re usually self-motivational and they just take a lot of pride in their work.”

At the end of the day, the position’s most endearing quality lies in the simplicity of its design.

“There will always be a place in football for a guy who is an overachiever that is physical and tough and doesn’t care if he gets the ball or not, he just wants to smash somebody else’s face,” pronounced Uremovich.

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