The Role Of The Fullback

It is a position that has been hotly debated since the 2007 season came to a close and three of its members all graduated. That's right, fullback is a top priority for the Ohio State Buckeyes this year. But as it turns out, perhaps it is not as big of a deal as others are making it out to be.

Ohio State's media guide tells you that the Buckeyes are missing two returning starters from an offense that figures to be among the tops in the country this year.

Then again, the media guide also lists Ray Small as a walk-on wide receiver.

The Buckeyes head into the 2008 season replacing so-called starters at both fullback and right tackle. Junior Bryant Browning will lock down the latter spot, leaving the fullback position in doubt. It is at fullback that question marks abound, as the coaches scramble to find replacements for the likes of Dionte Johnson, Tyler Whaley and Trever Robinson, all of whom saw time at the position last year.

But in the 13 games the Buckeyes played last season, they opened just five games with a fullback in the starting lineup. Johnson earned all of those starts. The rest of the time, OSU opened with either an extra tight end (Jake Ballard twice), an extra wide receiver (Small four times and Dane Sanzenbacher once) or an extra tailback (Brandon Saine once). In all, Johnson saw 100 minutes of action – not even half the time starting tailback Chris Wells saw despite suffering through injuries early during the season and being removed early from games already out of hand.

As the coaches continue to audition players at fullback and speculation abounds about who will find himself filling that role, it begs the question: How big of a deal is the fullback position anymore at OSU?

According to senior tight-end-turned-fullback Brandon Smith, the position is just as important as any other one along the offense.

"Whatever 11 is out there, you've got to make sure you get that one part done," he said. "I've got to do my job in order for the play to be successful. I think everybody has pretty much equal importance on the field."

The fullbacks do not typically find their way onto the stat sheet at OSU. Last season, Johnson earned one carry for a one-yard gain against Northwestern and Robinson and Whaley combined for four receptions. Instead, they are mostly relegated to trying to open holes for the likes of Wells.

With as many playmakers as the Buckeyes boast in the offensive game, though, the player lining up at fullback is increasingly finding himself relegated to the sidelines. At the team's fall jersey scrimmage, head coach Jim Tressel estimated that they employed a fullback for about 20 percent of the 165 plays during the scrimmage.

There is apparently plenty of competition to take that open fullback spot, however. Former linebacker Curtis Terry was considered the top contender but has switched back to defense. That leaves players like Smith and classmate Ryan Lukens battling with younger guys such as redshirt freshman Spencer Smith and true freshman Jermil Martin.

All are apparently taking snaps as the Buckeyes search for the right fit there.

"We've got to evaluate our fullback situation," Tressel said.

In all, Johnson, Whaley and Robinson combined for 200 minutes last season – less than half the time the Buckeyes were on offense. Although there will always be some need for a fullback, that cog in the offense appears to be becoming less important with each passing season.

Senior quarterback Todd Boeckman stressed the role of the fullback as being crucial to his own success.

"Once we get into two-back situations and guys are coming out of the backfield you never know when they're going to catch a pass here and there," he said. "I think it is (a big deal) because there's so much protection they need to do for me and the whole team."

Brandon Smith described himself as excited to change positions, adding that the running backs welcomed him with open arms.

To him, the true impact of the position is not clearly visible unless something goes wrong.

"It's a big deal," he said. "If you're in there and you don't get your job done I think the whole stadium will know it if someone tackles Beanie for a three-yard loss. That's going to come down on me. When they design us and they put us in the game, we have to get our job done."

Even if he figures to see action on about 24 percent of the plays from scrimmage – the percentage of plays Johnson saw last year as the "starter" – he is looking forward to the chance to block for Wells and hopefully not get run over.

"That's what happens in the trenches," he said. "The linemen get pulled around and it's a big mess. You try to get your man and get him out of the way."

Or at least, on the 20 percent of the plays a fullback is actually in the game.

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