Fullback Enjoys Being More Involved in Game Plan

With the arsenal of offensive weapons at Dirk Koetter's disposal, Mike Karney, the Devils 6-0 257 bruising fullback, is usually not even a third option in the passing game. However, his diverse talents are hard for anyone to ignore, and lately he has become another viable option in ASU's explosive arial attack. In this exclusive DevilsDigest interview, Karney talks about this topic, the team's running game troubles, and declaring early for the NFL draft.

"Every week I'm more involved in the game plan than I ever was", says the junior, "I always have a little more in the tank when I know that they're calling my number in the huddle (smile). It's fun to show people what you can do, besides what they think you can do. For me it's real exciting when you know you're the first read on the play. It's a lot of fun." In the Washington game he caught two passes for 25 yards, but he will be more likely remembered for the ball he didn't catch in the end zone. Some would say, it was a play more suitable for a wide out or a speedy running back, but the fullback makes no excuses. "How many fullbacks in the country are running the wheel route? Yeah, we practiced that all week, and my first thought when the ball was in the air was ‘oh man, he (Walter) overthrew me.' But I ended up catching up to it, and I think I was more shocked that I caught up to it, than when I actually had the ball in my hands. It was one of those things where I put a good effort in it. Should I have caught it? Yeah, that's on me. Hopefully in the next few weeks they'll come back to me with that play, and I'll be able to capitalize on it."

It wasn't long ago that the 2001 Pac-10 honorable mention, was wondering how he would fit in with the team. He played as a true freshman in Bruce Snyder's last year as a coach. With the arrival of Dirk Koetter, and the sharp change in offensive philosophies, the doubts started to linger. "I was recruited here to be a true full back under Coach Snyder, and when he leaves you just wonder what the fullback role will be? It's not a high quality position that everyone needs like a quarterback or a receiver. It just took time for everything to reveal itself. This year it really shows that the coaches will use the fullback. So, all my concerns are already put to rest last year, and this year I'm even doing more." When you listen to Karney talk about his preparation for his college career, it's easy to see why he is arguably the best in the conference in his position. "I'm glad I played as a true freshman, because in high school I prepared myself to play my freshman year. That was my goal. I didn't need to get used to working out, because I was doing all those things everyday after school. It was my expectation to play right away. Playing my first year has helped to get to where I am today. I gained a lot of valuable experience."

With ASU's remarkable 2002 success, the team's running game struggles are probably the only caveat that the Sun Devil followers have these days. As someone who often paves the way for ASU's ball carriers, Karney offered this unique perspective. "The passing game has been huge, and the running game has kinda been here and there. We definitely need to establish a better running game through the next few weeks, because Washington did a great job covering Shaun (McDonald) and the other receivers. But last year we ran the ball well, as a team we had a lot of 200-300 games, but we went 4-7. So, would we rather be running the ball OK and winning or running for a lot of yards and losing? I'd rather be winning. It will come through. If the defenses we face continue to double on our receivers, that will open some lanes for our backs." Even though his team regularly plays three running backs with different running styles, he doesn't sense any different approach in his blocking techniques for each one. "To me it's no different. You can put coach Koetter at running back, and I'll block for him the same way I do for the other three. You have three types of runners. Hakim has more moves, than Cornell and Mike who are down hill runners. So, even though you have to be aware what kind of runners they are, the blocking doesn't really change."

One compliant that will never be heard in regards to ASU's running game is the lack of a physical fullback. Not only does the junior hold the team record for squatting 601 lbs., but that mark is also the all-time best of any ASU player. Karney takes a humble approach to this physical feat. "I don't have too much bragging rights over this. It was just an opportunity, and I did it. I know all the guys are working hard to improve their strength. It's just a lot of fun working out. (Strength) Coach Kenn wants me to squat 650 by wintertime. It will take a lot of work, but that will be one of my goals." This gym rat not only enjoys the state of the art strength and conditioning facilities the team has, but also the award winning coach that comes with it. "Before coach Kenn we weren't half as strong as a team as we are now. He deservers a lot credit in the way he teaches the techniques. With the facilities we have now you just don't have any excuses. Before we were working out in locker rooms, and lifting old weights. All three strength coaches do a great job in getting us prepared…just like Coach Koetter wants to have the best team that will win national championships, Coach Kenn wants us to be the best in strength and conditioning. He has goals for us to accomplish, and we take a lot of pride of being prepared from a conditioning stand point, not only from a Football one."

Based on their recent track record, the Sun Devils could be dubbed ‘Fullback U." In the last few years, former ASU fullbacks Jeff Paulk, Terrell Smith, and Stephen Trejo have all been playing in the NFL. Karney is eager to continue that tradition. "Playing in the NFL is my ultimate dream. I'm one of those stories you hear all the time– growing up as a little kid wanting to play in the NFL. Now, I have a chance of being one of those guys. It's really exciting for me to have a chance and be part of some of the great fullbacks that are already in the NFL. It's exciting to think about, but you know in the meantime there's a lot of work to be done." When we asked is there any chance he will forgo his senior season, Karney remained non-committal. "I get asked that all the time if I'm gonna declare early. We'll see – what happens happens (smile)…" While the junior hasn't played one down in the NFL, he claims that playing with Andrew Walter can't be all that different. "It's definitely like being with a great NFL quarterback. When you're in the huddle with him, you just know you're playing with greatness. He's great now, and he has so much potential to be even greater. It's unbelievable. He brings so much confidence to the huddle. We all look at him and we know that we believe in him, and he believes in us. What he's doing right now is hard to explain. He's been through a lot; he's done everything the coaches have asked him to do. Now, it's just all working out for him and we're real happy for him."

The Kent, WA native is living large these days. He's fresh off an impressive victory over the University of Washington, and looming this weekend is a showdown with Washington State. Karney talks about how much those two games meant and will mean to him. "Beating Washington was huge, because just like Oregon we haven't beaten them in two years. I think we made a statement to the Pac-10 beating Washington, after that big win at Oregon. We're really doing good things this year…. This a huge game for us against Washington State. Being that I'm from that state, I'll have a lot extra in the tank for this game. It's a chance to take the lead in the Pac-10. Both teams are 4-0, so you really can't get more excited than this. Preparing this week will definitely be more intense than any other week, that's for sure." A lot of his family and friends from the evergreen state were in Tempe last Saturday, and some of them will trek to Pullman this weekend. The fullback enjoys that support, even though it comes with some good nature ribbing. "Pullman will be a little far from home, but I'll have a lot of family and friends making the trip. When I play the Washington teams, it's not the guys on those teams that call me after the game, but it's usually those who don't play the game and are just fans. We just go back and forth on the phone (smile). I have some family here that roots for Washington and for me at the same time, and they were telling me ‘man, you guys really took it to them'. It was nice to hear that, and I hope to hear that next week. Those guys gave me the biggest grief for dropping that pass against Washington."

With ASU having a dream season so far, the attention that Karney and his teammates have been receiving has been most intense. Can this extra interest lead to overconfidence? The fullback passionately dismisses that. "We're confident right now, but we know that we still have more work to do. We know we're not satisfied. 7-2 is great, but there's too much ahead of us to achieve to be cocky. We have our ladder of goals in the locker room, and we know each week that we have to climb that ladder. We have a great group of guys that know and understand what it's all about, and know what has to be done. We're not overconfident – we know what to do and we know how to do it. That's a great thing we have going, and we don't want it to stop." The extensive media coverage is something he takes in stride. "These interviews are fun, but I like to be the ‘behind the scenes' type of guy. When you're out there competing hard and winning, things happen and it all just rolls. That's fine. I'm willing to have attention (smile)."

Cohesiveness and chemistry may be the most worn out sports clichés, but the ASU players have bought into it 100%, and know it's a necessary stepping stone to bigger and better things. "Last January we had a players-only meeting. We always knew we had great talent here. It was just a matter of everyone pulling together and doing the work. We talked about being accountable for what you're doing on and off the field. We've done those things this year, and we always said before that if we do those things it's gonna carry over to the Football field." While some close to the program, as well as the fans, may be amazed at the success that Dirk Koetter's team is currently enjoying, Mike Karney knows this year's accomplishments are merely validation for the groundwork that has been laid for almost two years now. "It's more exciting than surprising. It may have surprised our family and friends, they saw all the people we lost and saw all the question marks about us. The team and the coaches always believed we could be where we are at right now." If anyone thinks that the Sun Devils are content with just defying the pre-season critics, think again. "Now, it's a matter of keep on going forward. We're bowl eligible, but we can determine what bowl we go to. Our goal is to get to the Rose Bowl, and we have a great opportunity to do so." And if the Sun Devils do make it to that pinnacle, you can assume that the "behind the scenes" ASU fullback was part of it all.

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