The Chicago Bears haven't deployed a traditional fullback since Tyler Clutts in 2011. Since then, the club has tried to get by with H-backs as lead blockers, choosing athleticism over pure power.
That might change this year, as the coaching staff appears high on the potential of Paul Lasike as the club's pure lead-blocking fullback of the future.
Making Chicago's 53-man roster would be quite the accomplishment for Lasike, a former rugby player who began playing football just four years ago.
"If I look back maybe 10 years or so when I was playing school rugby in New Zealand, I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that I would be right here right now. It's crazy," Lasike told Bear Report during veteran minicamp this week. "The first time I ever stepped on a football field was when I attended BYU on a rugby scholarship.
"I was on a Mormon mission in Alabama. BYU heard about me and recruited me for their rugby squad," he said. "As a young guy new in this country, there was no way I would pass up a chance to play rugby and get a full ride to attend a top school. That team is very highly regarded and I felt being a part of it would help me progress athletically.
"One day I was walking by the football field. It looked interesting and not that different from rugby except for the helmets and pads. I’ve always enjoyed any athletics that involved knocking people down. Rugby certainly qualifies on that score, but football does as well. The rules were different, the uniforms were different but if you like to hit, the two sports aren’t that dissimilar.
"I went in as a walk on and was able to do pretty well initially but the learning curve was huge. The coach there, Bronco Mendenhall, seemed surprised when I showed up at one of his practices and asked for a chance. There I was a guy form overseas with a background in another sport. I didn’t understand the plays, I didn’t know how the scoring went, everything was completely new."
Lasike eventually joined the Cougars football team as a walk on and ended up playing in 12 games his sophomore season.
"That first down lining up for BYU was the first time I'd ever played in a football game. It was an incredible experience. Very enjoyable," said Lasike. "With my family, however, I had some explaining to do. I left New Zealand as a rugby prospect and suddenly had left that game. My parents were shocked.
“'What exactly is American football? How is it played? Why are you doing this?' were the questions I’d get from them," he said. "Clearly we were starting from scratch as a family learning about this new foreign game. They were able to come in last season and watch me so they have a slightly better understanding of all of this than they did a year ago. But I realize there's still a lot of work for me to help them fully grasp this game."
After finishing his collegiate career with 843 rushing yards in 39 games played, Lasike was signed last off-season by the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent. He was waived following the preseason and was the signed to the Chicago Bears practice squad, where he stayed for almost the entire year.
"I joined the Cardinals initially, then was cut before the season began. Luckily the Bears were familiar with me so they made an offer as soon as I was let go," he said. "The best part was that when I arrived here it felt like the perfect fit.
"Last year I was on the scout team. You get a lot of time on the field in practice so it's a great way to learn about the NFL. There is a lot of film study involved and that was good for me. My goal was to pick up enough knowledge and skill that the Bears would want to keep me on."
That's exactly what happened, as the Bears signed Lasike to a reserve/futures contract in February. He'll now enter training camp as the frontrunner to secure a fullback role on the 2016 roster, and he'll be leaning on his training as a rugby player to make that dream a reality.
"The main difference I’ve noticed between football and rugby is that if you are playing on a rugby team you’ll be in the game the entire time. The conditioning demands are tremendous," he said. "In football you might play a few downs then you’re on the sidelines for a while. That isn’t to say that football isn’t strenuous, but it's a different kind of intensity level for a different amount of time.
"Of course the other main difference is that in football you wear a helmet and in rugby we don’t do that. It makes a big different in how you block. Playing rugby you are more upright. In football you get down somewhat lower and tend to go with your upper body more. Both are rough physical games and I love that. Blocking your opponent is fun. I love to get leverage and have a guy opposing me go down. There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, as well as the physical effort."
During OTAs and veteran minicamp, Lasike has worked with the first team in power run situations, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line sets. He's also shown decent hands as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
"I know that in the NFL that the fullback position hasn’t been utilized that much in the more recent past, but I feel it might be making a comeback," said Lasike. "Having an extra weapon like that frees up your offense to be more versatile on the field.
"My learning curve is good. I spent a lot of time watching other players on offense last season to get a feel for what we were doing. I am confident going forward. My main goal right now is to make the team. I’d love to be on the regular roster, but this is the NFL and competition is tough. I’ve never backed down from a challenge and I am planning to make the most of this opportunity. It's my job to demonstrate to the coaches and the other players that I am a positive addition to the team. If I am not fortunate enough to make this team, I am hoping one of the other teams in the league will have heard of me and I'll get the chance to play somewhere."
If Lasike can prove his run-blocking prowess in the preseason, while also showing value as a receiver, he'll be a welcome addition to the 53-man roster, one who might be able to take Chicago's run game to the next level.