Shortly after I began contributing to Land Grant Holy Land, I realized that I was already struggling to come up with good content for the offseason/summer months. Hell of a start, right? But unfortunately, once the NFL Draft takes place, the content well tends to dry up unless you’ve already dialed in on one of the spring sports or the NBA Draft (but as Buckeye hoops fans... you get it). Ohio State football and basketball – our most popular topics – are still part of the news cycle, but they have taken a back seat. And recruiting... well, there are people at LGHL who do a hell of a job covering it, so I wasn’t about to swim with those sharks.
I needed to think outside the box. I thought: Football is months away, basketball is months away, recruiting is speculative and subject to change... many of the topics being covered now revolve around future events or predictions. But what about former players? And I’m not talking recent or soon-to-be draftees, because those athletes are still being talked or written about.
I am referring to unheralded and underappreciated Buckeyes from decades ago, that have been forgotten by some (or most) since they last donned the scarlet and gray. And there it was: Forgotten Buckeyes. Other OSU fans and media types have taken a similar approach to recognition, but this is my personal way of appreciating those who left an indelible mark at Ohio State.
Welcome to Volume II.
Hand up, my mistake... I did not cover a fullback during last summer’s Forgotten Buckeyes series. Total error on my part, and it was very odd considering that I used to love watching guys like Mike Alstott, Larry Centers, Lorenzo Neal, and Cory Schlesinger in the NFL. They were legitimately some of my favorite players. It simply comes down to the fact that fullbacks did not (and do not) typically receive Alstott-level attention at Ohio State — at least not in the years I have been a fan.
I missed the careers of Jim Otis, John Brockington, and Pete Johnson, so I don’t feel qualified to write about their potentially forgotten greatness. And the Zach Boren-types have been few and far between ever since. I also think Boren is still a very well-known player, even among younger fans. But there were a couple of guys who I believe slipped through the cracks during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. In an effort to make up for my past negligence, this week’s Forgotten Buckeyes is a double dose of mean, nasty, hard-hitting fullback appreciation.
Nicky Sualua | Fullback (1993-1995)
Nicky Sualua was a two-way football player, wrestler, and weightlifting champion in high school. If that doesn’t scream fullback, I don’t know what does. He did all of the above while attending football powerhouse Mater Dei (HS) in Santa Ana, California — a school that has produced scores of NCAA football and NFL-level talent. Sualua committed to Ohio State in January of 1993, and famously stated that he was “looking forward to the challenge of playing in the Big Eight.” Whoops...
If they were even aware of Sualua’s gaffe, OSU fans would have forgiven his misconceptions regarding the conference they play(ed) in, because he eventually developed into a devastating blocker for the Buckeyes. But it didn’t happen right away. Sualua took a redshirt in 1993. He then lost the battle for the starting fullback role in 1994, and only took over when two of his peers were beset by injuries. Regardless of how it happened, Sualua took full advantage of the opportunity to start and function as the team’s lead blocker.
With Alex Rodriguez forced to retire for medical reasons, and Matt Calhoun also dinged up, the 5-foot-11, 250-pounder from Santa Ana started the final eight games of the ’94 season. Unlike fullbacks in previous years, Sualua was not featured in the run game often (only 25 carries). He was asked to pass protect and pave the way for star running back Eddie George, which is exactly what he did. George rushed for 1,442 yards behind Sualua and an improved offensive line, and established his name as one of the most dangerous players in all of college football. The “other guys” received very little credit, but such is the life for a fullback and/or offensive lineman.
After going 9-4 the previous season, Ohio State was being mentioned as a national championship contender in 1995. Sualua returned to block for George, but missed the first two games while he worked himself into playing shape. The reason he was late in doing so, is because he missed most of fall camp due to academic issues. However, it was not the last time academics got in the way of Sualua suiting up for the Buckeyes. But he eventually got into playing shape and out of the doghouse, and helped open up holes and running room for the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
George rushed for over 1,900 yards and 24 touchdowns, and added 417 more yards through the air. Sualua did not put up the stats himself, but he was a contributor to greatness. The fullback did chip in with 20 carries for 109 yards, and also became more involved in the passing game. He caught 17 passes for 129 yards, including the only two touchdowns of his OSU career.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the team fizzled out after an 11-0 start. They lost to TTUN and Peyton Manning-led Tennessee to close out the season, ending what could have been a special run. Sualua was projected to return for the 1996 season, but he never played a down. He was once again ruled academically ineligible, and eventually declared for the NFL Draft. Sualua’s time as a Buckeye ended in disappointment, which is too bad because the big fullback was a fan-favorite and well-liked by teammates. He never found the same level of football success again, and his professional career ended under tragic circumstances.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Sualua in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL Draft. He was thought to be their heir apparent to Daryl “Moose” Johnston, but the former Buckeye only spent two seasons as a backup. He never registered a rushing attempt or reception for the ‘Boys, and the team released him prior to the 1999 season. Dallas claimed it was for football reasons, but Sualua was also present for the accidental overdose of former Cowboy Mark Tuinei.
He was never accused of buying or supplying drugs, nor was he ever charged with a crime in relation to the overdose, but Sualua ultimately attempted to let his friend and former teammate “sleep it off” — rather than taking him to a hospital. Tuinei passed on May 6, 1999. Sualua was waived by Dallas a month later, and eventually signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. But he was released with an injury settlement in September, and never caught on with another NFL team.
Nicky Sualua might be remembered more for the unfortunate losses he was a part of, but I have no interest in playing judge, jury, or executioner. His on-field contributions for Ohio State were more significant than many people realize, and that is what I am choosing to bring light to. The former fullback contributed to a Heisman-winning season, albeit somewhat indirectly. For that, Buckeye fans should acknowledge his place in OSU history.
Branden Joe | Fullback (2000-2004)
Branden Joe was a First Team All-Ohio running back for Westerville South High School, located in Columbus. He also played linebacker on the defensive side of the ball, and packed a serious punch due to his roughly 6-foot, 230-pound frame. Joe committed to Ohio State as part of the 2000 recruiting class, and proceeded to not play either of his high school positions ever again. But he did become a versatile fullback and a national champion, which is surely more important than individual rushing yards or total tackles.
Joe redshirted as a freshman, and as far as I could tell, was still listed as a running back in 2001. However, due to depth at the position, he never appeared in a game. OSU had another deep RB room in 2002 – made even better by the addition of Maurice Clarett – and as a result, the decision was made to move Joe to fullback on a permanent basis. The move paid off for both he and the Buckeyes, in ways few could have imagined (at least prior to that ‘02 season).
Fullback duties were split between Joe and Brandon Schnittker in 2002, with both playing in all 14 games. Neither player was heavily involved in the offense (four combined touches), but each had their moments blocking for Clarett, Lydell Ross, and/or Maurice Hall. Joe also played frequently on special teams, which was of the utmost importance to head coach Jim Tressel. The fullback’s tangible contributions were limited and never jumped out on paper, but he carved out a role and eventually earned a ring.
You know the story: the Buckeyes made an unexpected title run, were heavy underdogs to the Miami Hurricanes in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, and the rest is history. The fullbacks were unable able to spring Clarett for many big gains in that championship game, but he and quarterback Craig Krenzel did combine for four rushing touchdowns. It was a total team effort, Joe included.
Joe took a more active role in the offense during his final two seasons, but that’s not a whole lot. Similar to his Ohio State coaching predecessors, Tressel used a stable of running backs, but fullbacks were not featured the way they were during the 80’s and 90’s. Joe only totaled 77 carries and six receptions over his final two seasons, adding a lone touchdown in 2004. It was his first and last as a Buckeye, but he continued to be a strong lead blocker when called upon. OSU went 11-2 and 8-4 in 2003 and 2004, respectively, as they were never able to match the success of the 2002 squad. But Joe made a lifetime of memories during that season alone.
Joe never caught on in the NFL, only spending a few months with the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the 2006 season. He has remained in Columbus, Ohio and has spent time covering the Buckeyes for local media outlets. Like many former players, he is active on social media and always supports his team. Though he was never the most high-profile player during his Ohio State career, Joe made an impact on the program and left a champion. Those players are always worth a mention, especially the forgotten fullbacks.