Before games, Aaron Ripkowski paints his face black.
Mom doesn’t like it.
“Oh, no, she hates it,” Ripkowski said. “She wants to see my face. She hates when I cover it up. You know how mothers are.”
The guys he’s blocking probably hate it, too, as they grow weary of facing the hard-charging, 238-pound Oklahoma fullback snap after snap.
There’s no denying Ripkowski’s toughness. Physically, Ripkowski was the Big 12’s second-team fullback as a senior. Mentally, Ripkowski earned every snap, every start and every accolade that came his way at Oklahoma.
At Dayton (Texas) High School, he started at guard as a junior and linebacker as a senior. During the summer before his senior season, he attended an Oklahoma camp as a linebacker.
“I did some linebacker drills, because that’s what I played (in high school) was linebacker and defensive end, and they liked my footwork so they took us over to another field and had a few guys going head to head (as fullbacks) seeing who could push who around,” Ripkowski recalled. “That was a lot of fun and I guess I impressed them.”
Ripkowski impressed enough to be offered a spot as a walk-on. At that point, his only scholarship offer was to the Naval Academy. After talking it over with his parents, he decided to test his mettle against the elite competition at Oklahoma.
As a freshman, he played in nine games, mostly on special teams. As a sophomore, he played in 12 games and earned extended playing time on offense in highly successful short-yardage and goal-line situations. He was rewarded with a scholarship.
Ripkowski became the No. 1 fullback for his final two seasons, playing in 26 games and making 16 starts. Behind Ripkowski’s lead blocking in 2014, the Sooners ranked 12th in the nation with 3,395 rushing yards and fifth with 6.1 yards per carry.
That’s when Ripkowski started thinking the NFL might be more than a dream.
“I heard some things early on (in my career),” Ripkowski said, “with guys saying, ‘You’re the right size and the stereotypical fullback at the next level’ and all of that, but I never really paid any attention to it because it’s something that you don’t really control and what you say and what you think about all of that next-level stuff doesn’t really help you. I really just approached every week like it was the same and didn’t allow the dream to affect what I was doing. I was more of a focus guy and liked to focus on the here and now.”
Ripkowski mostly did the dirty work for the Sooners. As a junior, he touched the ball only once — a 3-yard touchdown catch. As a senior, he rushed six times for 13 yards and three touchdowns and caught seven passes for 38 yards and one more score.
The so-called demise of the fullback position in the NFL has been exaggerated. What’s gone extinct is the old-school 250-pound fullback. In today’s NFL, a fullback has to be able to keep a defense honest by catching the ball out of the backfield. His eight career catches notwithstanding, Ripkowski said he’s got good hands.
“I didn’t get to show them off too much but I believe I didn’t have any drops when I did get it thrown to me in the games,” he said. “I have huge confidence in my hands. That’s something I didn’t get to showcase because I didn’t get the ball thrown to me too much but it’s something I will surprise guys with at the next level.”
He put his pass-catching skills on display at Oklahoma’s pro day.
“I feel like that was huge for me,” he said. “That’s one of the things that started turning scouts’ heads there. They came over and wanted me to fill out a few questionnaires and stuff like that. They really showed interest when they saw I could actually move out of the backfield and catch the ball.”
That workout no doubt played a role in his visit to Green Bay. The Packers re-signed Pro Bowler John Kuhn recently but he’ll turn 33 in September and his one-year contract didn’t include a signing bonus. The Packers either have to consider grooming a replacement or potentially wage an all-out battle for the position.
“It went well. It went really well,” Ripkowski said. “Sam Gash, the running backs coach, he was a fullback in the league for something like 15 years. He’s a hard-nosed, old-school guy. We watched some film and he really liked what he saw. He’s a great coach.”
Not that Ripkowski has any control on where he’s drafted, but learning from a two-time All-Pro like Gash obviously would be appealing.
“That’d be huge,” he said. “A lot of guys, not trying to say that a running backs coach who played running back doesn’t know the difference in a fullback, but it always helps to have someone who played the position and he knows what he’s looking for on film. He knows how the game’s played at that spot.”
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