When Vikings fullback Naufahu Tahi waited to see if he would get selected in the 2006 NFL draft, he was what you would call a relatively unknown commodity. How unknown? In the pre-draft rankings, Pro Football Weekly listed the Brigham Young product as "Tahi Naufahu."
He's come a long way in two-and-a-half years. In fact, he's come a long way, period. After his freshman year at BYU in 1999, Tahi went on a three-year Mormon mission and didn't know if he would have a football career beyond college. He was thankful that, after leading the Cougars in rushing as a senior with 872 yards and scoring eight touchdowns – six rushing, two receiving – he might get a shot in the NFL. There was only one problem. He was rated as a top 10 fullback back prospect in the Class of 2006, but he would have one major hurdle to clear.
"I never played fullback in college," Tahi said. "I always played tailback, so I had a lot to learn. The reads are a lot different and you have to make your reads quicker. That wasn't as difficult as picking up protection and lead blocking. That was the hardest part to learn."
Tahi's career started with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he made the team's practice squad. He was signed away by the Vikings Nov. 22, 2006 – which guaranteed him a roster spot for the rest of the season. Beyond that, it would seem, nothing has been guaranteed for Tahi.
Early in the 2007 free-agent period, the Vikings signed veteran and potential Hall of Fame fullback Tony Richardson. In the first days of free agency this year, the Vikings signed Thomas Tapeh to be the starting fullback and, for the second time in as many years, Tahi found himself as being a potential roster casualty when final cutdowns came around.
Not only did Tahi survive the wrath of The Turk, he has found himself starting for the Vikings as the fullback paving the way for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Tahi said he didn't it take it personally when the Vikings used free agency to bolster the position he played each of the last two years. He took it as a challenge to make it as difficult as possible for the team to release him.
"Coming out of college, I was an undrafted free agent, so I knew coming in that it was going to be an uphill climb," Tahi said. "I had to prove myself every day. If anything, it has motivated me to work harder and study more and do all the little things I need to do to be a better player. I do what I can to help the team, whether on offense or special teams. In the end, all the hard work in the offseason has worked out."
What Tahi has accomplished in two years is no small feat. Without prior experience at fullback, he had to learn the multiple responsibilities that position carries with a West Coast Offense. In the WCO, a fullback is expected to be a lead blocker, protect the quarterback on blitzes, an occasional short-yardage runner and a receiver. That's a lot to put on a guy's plate who is learning all of his new responsibilities at once. None of them were easy, but one stuck out – and still does – as the facet of the game that has been the slowest in coming.
"Lead blocking was the hardest transition," Tahi said. "I'm still trying to get to that point that where Adrian and Chester are comfortable with me in front of them and trusting my decisions. I just need to be more decisive and confident in the scheme."
Tahi said his year playing and learning from Richardson was invaluable and that he hopes to eventually develop into the type of fullback Lorenzo Neal has been for more than a decade. He knows that is a lofty goal, but setting and reaching goals is nothing foreign to him.
Recently, Peterson said that there are times he would prefer to run without a fullback to read his own cuts, but, in the West Coast Offense, the importance of the fullback is multi-dimensional. Tahi said that, with more work, he hopes to be a player that Peterson and Taylor will follow to the promised land on a regular basis. The comfort level has been coming in terms of baby steps, but Tahi said he sees improvement and expects to see more as their mutual confidence grows. Besides, he knows where his bread and butter is when it pertains to paving the road for the game's most electrifying running back.
"I think we're getting there," Tahi said. "I know where he's going, but a lot of times, he's so fast that I have to make more decisive, quick decisions. I think it's more me trying to get on the same page with him than him getting on the same page with me. I think it's coming along and, like the coaches say, don't be so focused that you lose focus. My job is to get a quick read of the defense, know where I'm supposed to be and get out of his way so he can do his thing."
Tahi still learning fullback's finer points
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