In the early part of the 2005 college football season, the Texas Longhorns engaged Louisiana-Lafayette in a lopsided, pre-conference tilt. In the second half, with the game already well out of hand, Texas coach Mack Brown decided to give his freshman running back the first snaps of his collegiate career.
With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Texas lined up in a power-I formation for a 3rd down and 1 play. QB Matt Nordgren turned and handed the ball to his big running back for an up-the-middle blast. The freshman runner lowered his head and moved the pile three yards, then spun backward and tore himself from the grip of the opposing linebacker. He then made a quick cut on the safety and lumbered 10 yards for the touchdown.
That runner was not current Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, although he also made his freshman debut that game. No, that big back was current Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton. He went on to score 10 touchdowns his freshman year, which ranked third all time for a UT freshman. In two seasons as a runner, Melton carried the ball 132 times for 625 yards (4.7 average) and 16 touchdowns.
RB Henry Melton
Yet Brown and the rest of the Longhorns coaching staff knew Melton was better suited as a defender and before the 2008 season they chose to make him a defensive end. As a backup his junior year, he racked up 11 tackles and one sack. As a senior starter, Melton had 29 tackles, 10 for a loss, and 4 sacks.
His body of work was severely truncated due to the position switch and he didn't post eye-popping numbers as a defensive lineman, yet many NFL scouts were intrigued by his size and quickness.
He measured 6-3, 269 pounds and ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at the University of Texas Pro Day. He bench pressed 225 pounds 23 times, had a 34.5-inch vertical leap of and a 10-1 broad jump – all very good numbers for his position.
He was a raw prospect, yet the Bears saw potential in Melton and selected him in the fourth round – 105th overall – in the 2009 draft. The team envisioned a player whose blend of size and speed would allow him to develop into a fierce edge rusher. He landed on injured reserve his rookie season but was very impressive in training camp last year, earning himself a spot on the roster.
Melton didn't start any games but worked his way into the defensive line rotation at both the tackle and end positions. Used mostly as a situational rusher, he showed good quickness and burst off the ball. He earned his first sack against the Vikings in Week 10 and followed that up the next week with a second sack versus the Dolphins. He faded somewhat down the stretch during Tommie Harris' brief resurgence but finished the year with 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Now that Harris is gone, the Bears are looking for Melton to fill that 3-technique position. He has added weight to his frame and is currently 294 pounds. That is about as heavy as the team wants him, as they don't want to curb his explosiveness.
Melton will be entering his fifth season as a defensive lineman. He has developed every year and looks to be on the verge of consistent production. The coaching staff has sung his praises all offseason.
"I think Henry Melton is a talented athlete," Bears coach Lovie Smith said at the NFL owners meeting. "His upside is ... we saw some special plays from him in a limited role, and I'm excited about him getting some more reps. Probably inside. He's a guy who can go up, as far as weight is concerned.
"We have options with Henry. I think he's going to be one of those guys we're going to be talking about. I don't want to get too high on that, hasn't done a lot, but he's definitely one of those guys with a lot of potential."
With Anthony Adams a free agent, how the defensive-line rotation will play out is still up in the air. If Adams re-signs, he and Matt Toeaina will man the nose tackle position, while rookie Stephen Paea and Melton will rotate at the 3-technique. If Adams walks, Paea may be asked to play nose with Toeaina, at which point Melton may be thrust into starting duty. Former third-rounder Marcus Harrison will fit in the mix as well.
DT Henry Melton
Yet Melton also brings a lot of versatility. He can still be used as a defensive end if need be. His ability to fill in if Julius Peppers or Israel Idonije were to get hurt, or as a third-down rusher, makes him very valuable to the defense.
No matter how it all shakes out, one thing is for sure: Melton's opportunity to shine will come this season. His quickness and burst, coupled with his recent weight gain, could help him develop into an extremely effective inside rusher. Most 294-pound linemen can't run a 4.64 40-yard dash, so as far as athletic ability goes, the sky is the limit for Melton.
He now has sufficient experience at a position of need for the team, as well as support from the entire coaching staff and front office. The time couldn't be more perfect for Melton to put his stamp on this team.
"He kept getting a little better, a little better, so the arrow is going up," GM Jerry Angelo said. "Physically speaking, he's got everything you want, in terms of size, speed, toughness. That's not in question. Now its just matter of learning the position and that will come with repetition of more play."
If he can reach his potential and create havoc up the middle, the Bears defensive line will be one of the most formidable units in the NFL.
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider