FOOTBALL: Fullback powers way to limelight
Bobby Griffin | Wednesday, April 13, 2005
In many ways, the fullback is the most important position on offense outside of the quarterback. But what the fullback does is often overlooked and underappreciated.
This season, Rashon Powers-Neal might not have to deal with that aspect of being the other running back in the backfield, as the Irish coaching staff has made very clear that his role in the offense will extend far past run- and pass-blocking.
When he was an offensive coordinator in the NFL, head coach Charlie Weis often used his fullbacks in many ways other than simply clearing holes for running backs and picking up blitzes.
Patrick Pass, the New England Patriots’ fullback in 2004, caught passes out of the backfield (28 catches, 215 yards), fooled defenses expecting a handoff to running back Corey Dillon (39 carries, 141 yards) and even returned six kicks for 115 yards.
It is that type of diversity that the Irish coaching staff is hoping to get out of Powers-Neal this year.
In spring practices, Powers-Neal has been used as a halfback as well as a fullback, and should get significant time playing as the former.
Irish offensive coordinator and running backs coach Michael Haywood spoke about the expanded role Powers-Neal would have in this year’s offense.
“The thing that we’re trying to do is making sure that in different personnel groups, he gets to carry the ball and also putting him in situations when he’s in there when he can do a little bit more pass protecting when we have match up concerns,” Haywood said.
Haywood would not specify whether Powers-Neal was primarily playing at halfback or fullback, and gave little indication of what the possible depth chart looks like at either position.
“I think that with the rotation of tailbacks, we’re rotating guys in at tailback and getting guys a lot of reps,” Haywood said.
“We don’t have a certain depth chart … we’re just rotating guys in and seeing what plays that they run the best,” he added. “Certain guys may run the inside zone the best, certain guys may run the draw the best, and certain guys might run the outside stretch better than others.”
The coaching staff isn’t the only group excited about the possibility of using Powers-Neal in roles other than run blocking and pass protection.
The senior running back from St. Paul, Minn. is also optimistic and happy about his new role in the offense.
“It’s a whole lot of fun just being able to go out there and compete with all my teammates and make everybody better,” Powers-Neal said of his tailback duties.
Powers-Neal understands that at this point in the spring, his role is undefined – other than that he will be on the field.
“I just have to work on keep on improving, make sure I’m stepping my game up and playing hard.”
As a senior, there is a fair amount of pressure on Powers-Neal to be a team leader, to set an example and to teach his younger teammates. To a certain degree, the maturation of Darius Walker and Travis Thomas rests on the senior fullback’s shoulders.
“They are easy to block for; both of them are excellent running backs,” Powers-Neal said. “Basically I’m just trying to go out there and make sure they stay focused and make sure they got their plays down and make sure that are giving it their 100 percent every play.”
With Powers-Neal’s role coming into the season a bit vague, there is room for other fullbacks to step up and work their way into the rotation.
Ashley McConnell was one name that Haywood mentioned as a player who is performing well this spring.
Regardless of whether Powers-Neal is getting the majority of his reps as a halfback or a fullback, he clearly has his priorities straight heading into the season.
“I want to win every game and go undefeated,” Powers-Neal said. “Personally, I just want to be able to step my game up and be one of the top tier players and be a difference-maker out there on the field. I want be a leader and make everyone around me better.”
After speaking about Anthony Fasano’s importance to this year’s team, Weis was asked about Mark Bavaro, the tight end who Weis coached when he was with the New York Giants.
“He was probably the toughest player that I’ve ever seen as an offensive player,” Weis said. “Here’s a guy who was playing with a cadaver bone in his leg at the end of his career.”