It hit Randy Trivers all of a sudden, a revelation on a late August night two years ago.
His fullback at Syracuse, Tony Fiammetta, was bound for the NFL. No doubt in his mind. As Trivers watched a preseason NFL game, he isolated on the fullbacks.
The NFL game has changed rapidly — the genetics that constitute a pro-level fullback never have been hazier. But Trivers was sold. The next day at summer camp, he approached Fiammetta with his prophetic guarantee.
"He told me that there was no doubt in his mind that I could be doing that in a few years," Fiammetta said. "Hearing that from him gave me a little push in the right direction and gave me the motivation to have confidence in myself and go full-steam ahead with my dream of playing in the NFL."
"He believed in his heart that there was no way I could be denied."
The promise somehow endured 19 losses in 24 games and a full-fledged coaching coup — Trivers was exiled along with several other assistants in Greg Robinson's firing and is now the running backs coach at Rutgers. Through Syracuse's embarrassing demise from prominence, Fiammetta developed. The losses piled, the Carrier Dome emptied, Robinson's hot seat encompassed the program … and Fiammetta continued improving.
A shiny gold watch at the town dump, Fiammetta grew into the best fullback in this year's draft class. The Packers must land a host of prospects to nurture into Dom Capers' 3-4 defense this April. But landing a new fullback should be a secondary need.
Fiammetta piqued Green Bay's interest at the NFL Combine. The fullback said he bumped into general manager Ted Thompson in his hotel lobby and had an informal conversation.
The connection strengthened inside the training station at the Combine, where Fiammetta talked to running backs coach Edgar Bennett for about 30 to 35 minutes. Fiammetta said the two talked "about who I am and what the Packers offense is all about. I think I'd be a good fit in Green Bay." The engaging Bennett and throwback Fiammetta hit it off.
Fullbacks may be going extinct in today's game, but not in Green Bay. The Packers employ multiple fullbacks, including an iron-triangle backfield. With the status of restricted free agent John Kuhn uncertain, Fiammetta could be in Green Bay's midround plans. He's a fleet-footed crusher, ideal for the zone-blocking scheme.
The interest is mutual.
"Last year, they carried two fullbacks and sometimes they were even in the game at the same time," Fiammetta said. "I really liked that about the Packers and the fact that they really value the fullback. It's intriguing to me because that's pretty rare in the NFL nowadays."
Fiammetta is the kind of player that Big East defenses geared entire gameplans around. The departure of Taj Smith and year-long suspension of Mike Williams gutted Syracuse of its passing game last season. Former walk-on Cameron Dantley — the son of NBA great Adrian Dantley — settled for dumpoffs and checkdowns all season (he eclipsed 200 yards once).
Defenses jammed bodies into the box and teed off on Syracuse every Saturday. Where Fiammetta went, they went. He was the focal point for every defense, but Fiammetta helped Curtis Brinkley rush for 1,164 yards and seven touchdowns. SU's predictable playbook may as well of fallen under the Freedom of Information Act — yet Brinkley mustered 4.9 yards per carry.
Roommates on the road, Fiammetta and Brinkley talked every night before the game about how they'd attack the defense. Who he'd target, which hip Brinkley would slide off of, the fronts they'd face, the duo covered it all inside their hotel room.
A protector to the bone, Fiammetta said there wasn't another running back he'd rather block for. Maybe it was the two season-ending knee injuries Brinkley suffered at Syracuse. Spearheading Brinkley's vindication a duty to Fiammetta.
"I took a lot of pride in watching him succeed," Fiammetta said. "He knew that I was going to do everything that I could do on every play to get my assignment done and break him for a run. And I knew that he was going to run his butt off on every play."
The indication of Fiammetta's worth was exposed in the game he missed with a lower leg injury. Syracuse gained a grand total of 9 yards in the second half at South Florida without Fiammetta. After the game, Bulls defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said, "We based our entire gameplan around No. 43."
The next week against Louisville — with Fiammetta back in action — Syracuse steamrolled the Cardinals' defense for 207 rushing yards on 38 numbing carries with two touchdowns.
Scout.com draft expert Chris Steuber said Fiammetta is the best fullback available and will garner fifth-round consideration. In a conference call on Wednesday, ESPN's Mel Kiper said Fiammetta is the best all-around fullback and a third- or fourth-round prospect.
"Fiammetta is a solid, strong lead blocker who flashes the hands to be an option on offense," Steuber said. "He's very strong and doesn't back down from a challenge. He has a quick burst to the line and identifies the blitz immediately; outstanding in pass protection."
A highly recruited tailback, Fiammetta came to Syracuse at only 215 pounds. Now, he said he's anywhere between 245 and 250. His thick build is violent at the point of attack.
"He delivers punishing hits and gives the running back a chance to make his cuts," Steuber said. "He doesn't possess elite height, but has a solid muscular frame. He has to work on his route running and continue to develop his hands. He has good straight-line speed, but isn't a natural athlete; lacks fluidity in the hips."
Fiammetta flashed unparalleled strength at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. His 30 repetitions on the bench press ranked first among all running backs.
"I didn't know what everybody else was going to do but I knew what I could do because that's my strength," Fiammetta said. "I knew going into the Combine that I was going to be one of the top guys."
Scouts knew this, too. What Fiammetta needed to do was expand upon the athleticism he flashed in flickers at Syracuse. As a senior, he caught 16 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown. To break the shackles of the fullback stereotype, Fiammetta needed to show wheels in the 40 as well.
A fullback-best time of 4.6 seconds at the Combine proved Fiammetta isn't merely a muscle-bound hammer. He compares his style to New York Jets' fullback Tony Richardson — an athletic supplementary weapon out of the backfield that turned Priest Holmes into a fantasy-football legend.
The fullback position may be a dying breed in the NFL — the I-formation is something taught in Pop Warner and forgotten by JVs these days. More teams continue to mutate the West Coast offense and employ multiback sets, so the typical bell-cow back formula that Fiammetta pioneered last season is fading. And who knows what hell the Miami Dolphins broke loose last season with the Wildcat offense.
But after having several individual meetings with front offices and coaches at the Combine and the Senior Bowl, Fiammetta is sure there remains an industry for fullbacks. No need for the government to bail out his position just yet.
Especially in Green Bay.
"I think it's a good year to be a fullback in the draft," Fiammetta said. "I figure people are interested in me, so we'll just see what happens."
Tyler Dunne writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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