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Column: Where have all the fullbacks gone?

Is there any place for a fullback in today’s college game?

Ohio State University Pete Johnson
Pete Johnson, running like a fullback, against TTUN, November 1975
Set Number: X20049

Back in the day, the fullback was the high school team stud. He always played both ways, usually at middle linebacker on defense. He ate raw meat. Nobody messed with him. Rumor has it that Bear Bryant liked to recruit fullbacks to Alabama. He liked their toughness, their meanness. Once in Tuscaloosa, they put on weight and played on the line. He reputedly sought high school quarterbacks to play in the offensive and defensive backfields. Best athletes, he thought.

We don’t really run across fullbacks anymore. There isn’t one listed on the 2022 Ohio State roster, nor on the 2022 Georgia roster nor even on Army’s 2022 roster, and we know that they use fullbacks in their option game. No, the current term is “running back,” regardless of a player’s size or role.


The fullback through history

The term fullback is sometimes used in soccer as a synonym for defender – a player on the back line whose primary responsibility is defense. There must have been a time in American football when the fullback was the member of the offensive backfield furthest back from the line of scrimmage, with the quarterback closest and the halfback in between. But I don’t remember such a formation.

I go back pretty far, and the earliest formation that I remember (and played against) was the single wing. In that old-timey configuration, the quarterback was directly behind the center and closest to the line. Then the fullback, further back, and the tailback further back yet, were winged to one side or the other behind him. The fourth member of the backfield was the wingback, playing wide of the end and just off the line of scrimmage.

Then came the T-formation, which had the fullback playing in the middle between two halfbacks in a “full house” backfield. The so-called wing-T moved one of the halfbacks nearer the line and wide in the wing slot. The wishbone was similar to the T but moved the fullback closer to the line than were the other two running backs. The I-formation that dominated for so long had the quarterback under center, with the fullback and tailback in a line behind him. In this setup, the tailback was the glory position. Remember all of those Southern Cal tailbacks?

The point is that all of these formations, going through the 1970s at least, used a player recognized as and called a “fullback.” The pro-set, or split running back, formation dropped the name, and “running back” became the term. What set the fullback apart from halfbacks or other running backs?

First of all: size. They were bigger. They carried the ball, often in short yardage situations. And they blocked, leading sweeps or blocking straight ahead. They carried the ball too on cross buck, misdirection plays. You might think of them as secondary running backs, role players. And that’s what they’ve become, as a number of NFL teams still carry “fullbacks” on their rosters. But when Woody Hayes roamed the sidelines for the Buckeyes, fullbacks ruled. Who, after all, gained those three yards and kicked up that dust?


The Woody years: age of the Ohio State fullback

Woody Hayes was head football coach at Ohio State from 1951 through the 1978 season – 28 years. During that time, there were some memorable fullbacks. And we can pretty much line them up, one after the other.

Bob White, 1957-1959. White was one of the first Buckeye players that I actually remember. My friends and I all wanted to be Bob White when we played our brutal tackle games in the yard. White was big for a back in those days at 220 pounds, and he gained over 1800 rushing yards in his three years playing at Ohio State, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Gaining 859 yards in 1958, White was consensus All-American that year, but managed only one year in the pros after his Buckeye days were over.

Bob Ferguson, 1959-1961. Ferguson followed right on White’s heels and was the same size, but a bit faster. All-American in 1960 and 1961, Ferguson was second in the Heisman balloting in 1961. Gaining nearly 2200 yards as a Buck, Ferguson averaged 5.1 yards for his 423 carries. He, too, had a very short pro career lasting only a couple of years.

Matt Snell, 1961-1963. Snell is now much better known for his NFL career, as he played nine years with the New York Jets, making the Pro Bowl three times. He’s listed as “fullback” in the Jets archives and averaged 4.1 yards a carry as a pro, better than his 3.7 average as a Buckeye.

Jim Otis, 1967-1969. Like the three Hayes fullbacks ahead of him, Otis weighed in at about 220, but he sure seemed bigger. Otis gained over 2500 yards in his three-year Buckeye career and scored 35 touchdowns. His 4.3 rushing average is about par for these fullbacks. Otis was All-American in 1969 and went on to play eight years in the NFL with Kansas City and St. Louis.

John Brockington, 1968-1970. Called “Big John,” Brockington’s playing weight at OSU was a solid 225. He tallied 24 touchdowns in college and averaged 4.4 yards over his 378 carries. Brockington was also quite successful as a pro, playing fullback for the Packers for seven years, making the Pro Bowl three times — the three seasons that he gained over 1000 yards.

Champ Henson, 1972-1975. Woody’s fullbacks were getting bigger; Henson tipped the scales at 240. Overlapping with Archie Griffin, he gained only 1335 yards at Ohio State, but he was the one getting the ball near the goal line and scored 36 rushing touchdowns.

Pete Johnson, 1973-1976. Johnson also shared rushing duties with Griffin, but weighing 252, Johnson was a different kind of runner (and blocker). Averaging 4.2 yards per carry, Johnson gained 2300 yards as a Buckeye and scored an impressive 56 rushing touchdowns. Johnson went on to play fullback for eight years in the NFL, seven of them with the Bengals.

Griffin’s success as a Buckeye runner — two Heismans and a career average of 6.0 yards per carry — turned attention away from the fullback. Griffin was much faster than this list of fullbacks, and he had more breakaway runs. Noted for his stiff-arms, Griffin was a hard runner but weighed only about 190. After Woody, it’s hard to think of Ohio State fullbacks. Keith Byars? He had the size but didn’t really play the position. And now? Nobody.


Today’s Buckeye offense

The most common offensive formation for the Buckeyes these days is three receivers — two wide and one in the slot — a tight end and one running back. They sometimes run two tight ends, or four receivers, or no running backs. But it’s not often that we’ve seen two runners in the backfield at the same time. Sometimes, a tight end will line up in the backfield as a lead blocker. Other teams will occasionally use an offensive lineman in the backfield for the same purpose, especially on short-yardage plays. But no fullback.

They may make a comeback, but not soon. It’s a passing game now. As I look at the Buckeye roster, I see Steele Chambers, who has the size of a fullback but also speed. I doubt that his high school coach thought of him as a fullback. Mitch Rossi? He played running back in high school and sometimes finds himself, at 245 pounds, lined up in the traditional fullback position. He’s just the type and may have a pro possibility there? Who knows? There’s still a need for the uses of a fullback, but I think that we’re unlikely to hear the name.