Short-yardage back. It isn't exactly a well-rounded description of a running back, and it's not one Ciatrick Fason figured he'd have attacked to him when he entered the NFL last year.
But after last season, when 32 times for 62 yards in that limited role under the Mike Tice coaching regime, Fason became labeled as the short-yardage or goal-line back. With a new coaching staff occupying Winter Park, the 2005 fourth-round draft pick has been out to change that perception.
"When we got the pads on, I just had to prove that I'm not just that power guy, I can make guys miss and do whatever it takes to get yards. Once we got the pads on, coaches were able to see that I'm more than a goal-line back," Fason said.
So far, he has shown bursts of being an all-around back in training camp but has yet to really establish that skill in game situations.
He also knows that in order to garner more playing time in Brad Childress' offense, he will need to revert to the playing style that made him a mid-round draft choice out of the University of Florida.
"You pass the ball and you run the ball. That's mainly what I did at UF. A lot of people came into the season calling me a power back. I wasn't a power back until I got here last year in the goal-line situations. I'm really looking forward to just getting better day and day out and seeing what I can do," he said.
Last year, Fason just wanted an opportunity to do something at the professional level, he said. "Coach (Mike) Tice threw it my way and I took it and ran with it, but I want bigger roles – just help the team on third downs or whatever it takes," Fason said.
He's getting the opportunity to do that this year, at least in preseason.
Childress said players first need to put their skills on tape in practices, then they will get opportunities in games. Fason has shown his head coach a passion for the game that translates into more opportunities.
"He likes football, and you say, ‘What do you mean, he's a professional football player?' He likes football, and he likes all the stuff that goes along with football, whether it is the offseason conditioning and lifting. He wants to be good so he works at it," Childress said. "He can be a great pass protector. He can step up and stone you in terms of pass protection. He needs to make sure he's always got the right guy to block, because people are trying to confuse you on defense. He has to make sure he follows those rules.
"He's a hard runner, a long strider, but he can get his pads down and deliver a blow. He needs to continually work on it because he's a bit taller in stature."
In other words, Fason would seem to have the potential to be a reliable, multi-dimensional running back that can be used in any situation in the West Coast offense.
"It's a different offense, but asking me to do similar things I did at UF. You've got to run great routes, you've got to find the holes and get open and last but not least you've got to run the ball," he said. "That's the same things I did at UF. I'm just trying to transfer it and get rid of all the mental mistakes and just know the offense 110 percent."
Come Friday against Baltimore, Fason is expected to be the No. 2 running back behind former Raven Chester Taylor. Taylor was signed to a four-year, $14.5 million contract at the outset of free agency in March, a contract that automatically put him as the No. 1 running back.
"Chester busted his butt a long time being a backup in Baltimore, and I know he's a guy that wants to prove himself. I feel like if they're going to bring him in, I might as well go ahead and battle with him," Fason said. "If I'm not the guy, I want to be the guy next to him and get the opportunity to get the ball. These days, every team in the pros needs two backs."
"The whole time in camp I was just busting my butt, running hard and it's starting to pay off right now."
Said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell: "He's shown us that, one, he's very sharp in protection, and he can pick up the blitz. He's willing to stick it in there. He hasn't been perfect every time, but he's willing, and he's done a nice job as a runner. When we've handed him the ball, he can get the tough yards."
Fason said this is the hardest he's worked since high school, and the best preseason, college or pros, he's had in a long time.
His offseason work paid off when he surprised some people during weigh-ins for the running backs. All the running backs checked in at about 210 pounds, but Fason weighed in at 220, up from 207 last year, with increased muscle. He said that added weight hasn't decreased his flexibility, and being a taller back has allowed him to add weight with the negatives sometimes associated with that.
"I can go out and be that power back when needed and be that scat back if I have to," he said.
Overall, the production of the running game is still a work in progress. Undrafted rookie Wendell Mathis is the only halfback averaging more than 3 yards a carry. Fason has carried 16 times for 46 yards, a 2.9-yard average, while Taylor is averaging 2.8 yards on 19 carries. Mewelde Moore, who isn't expected to play Friday night for the second straight game because of a knee injury, is average 2 yards on five carries.
Fason cited two reasons for the struggles to date. The starting offensive line has only had two games – really only about three quarters – to jell, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie started the preseason with a wrap over his hand because of a fractured finger.
"(McKinnie's injury) was a real big factor because he really couldn't get his hands on anybody. He would always slip off blocks," Fason said. "Now that he's got it off, we feel way comfortable that we can run behind him."
And the Vikings are starting to feel more comfortable with Fason's ability to be a versatile, West Coast running back.
Fason Breaking Mold of Power Back
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