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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Native Nebraskans Excited, Humbled By First Husker Fullback Camp

June 18, 2023

Decades of history and a plethora of other high school football players surrounded Coy Vrbka last Tuesday. Sweeping banners showing national championships, bowl games, sold-out games and NFL Draft picks adorn nearly every surface of the Hawks Championship Center. Not even into his sophomore season at Shelby-Rising City, the scene humbled him at first. He called it nerve wracking when he lined up for measurements. Among the mess of bodies emerged Izaac Dickey, a soon-to-be senior at Cross County. The two are friends, bonded as aspiring college athletes in 8-man football.

“Embrace the grind and show everyone what you’ve got,” Dickey told him. “I know you’ve got what it takes to play big time football, show these coaches what you’ve got.”

They each went through measurements and the nerves settled. Vrbka thought he tested fine. He wants to get bigger, past 200 come football season, and faster, hopefully a sub-5 40. Dickey tested off the charts. He ran a 4.66 in the 40, his personal best. Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule even pulled him aside and said it was way faster than his Hudl page listed (4.72). He needed to update it but he still hadn’t by Saturday afternoon.

This wasn’t just another college-ran football camp. This was the first ever Nebraska fullback camp, geared specifically for the fullback. That one position is woven within the fabric of Nebraska football. Which makes it interwoven with Nebraska in general. Every team throughout Nebraska’s dominant run across three decades involved a fullback. Erin Dickey watched her son from the balcony overlooking the Hawks practice field in a shirt that read “Bring Back 90s College Football.” She watched Izaac play fullback since elementary school and grow to love it.

“You do everything,” Izaac told Hail Varsity. “The dirty work, the fun work, it’s just a mix of everything and it’s enjoyable. You just have to be a certain person to enjoy it.”

Dickey averaged about five carries a game last season with limited success. Usually gaining 5 yards at a time for a fresh set of chains in a swarm of bodies. Or, as he put it, doing natural fullback things. Then he managed 24 carries in each of the final two games, running for at least 122 yards in both. Vrbka, meanwhile, moved to fullback from tight end because the Huskies were loaded on the line. He made the move because it helped the team. Both appreciated Tuesday’s camp to give him a chance to work specifically at fullback. Dickey would typically have to choose to camp as a running back or linebacker. Vrbka wanted to hone his skills at fullback and it fit his hectic wrestling schedule.

After testing, they sat in chairs pointed towards the large tv screen at the practice facility. Before any drills they’d learn a bit of history of the fullback at Nebraska. Vrbka knows the fullback legacy and its significance. He knows Cory Schlesinger and goes to the same church as the Makovicka family. Dickey knows them and Todd Uhlir, who was also at Tuesday’s fullback camp to cheer his son. Trent Uhlir is now at Battle Creek, picking up where his father was going to play before a shoulder injury ended his career. Trent played fullback at Battle Creek at first and will likely play fullback in college. “It’s in the family blood, that’s for sure,” he said. His dad passed down stories about how they used to call Schlesinger “the anvil” because he hit so hard.

“You look back at some of those guys and you get goosebumps of just how physical they were,” the senior-to-be at Battle Creek said. “Since I’ve been alive I haven’t really seen that physicality in Nebraska so if this brings it back I’m all for it.”

Nebraska coaching analyst Ron Brown guided the group through a slideshow presentation of fullbacks. He was blown away only one player raised his hand when asked who knew about Roger Craig. Uhlir half-raised his hand, aware of the former Husker great but not entirely sure of his career accomplishments. Then came the names, Tom Rathman, Schlinger, the Makovickas, up to Andy Janovich.

Jon Lee beamed with excitement from the balcony. He grew up a Husker fan in a golden era, graduating high school in 2000. Every Saturday in the Lee house is dedicated to Husker football, even in the offseason when he keeps a countdown until the next kickoff. Now he watched his son, Tytus, competing on the Huskers’ practice field in a fullback camp.

“As a little kid we’d have a bunch of his friends over to watch a football game and I’ve been a Nebraska football fan ever since I was a little kid,” Tytus, a soon-to-be junior at Mead, said. Just a few years ago he saw his first Husker game, even making it to the Tunnel Walk so he could high-five Adrian Martinez and Stanley Morgan Jr.

Lee’s father initially suggested he play at fullback. He enjoyed it in junior high school but Mead already had a starting fullback when he got to high school. Lee then moved to the offensive line when one of Mead’s starting guards puked before a game because of nerves. He stayed there until the Raiders played Johnson-Brock and Lee, on the front lines of the kickoff team, fielded a squib kick. He ran forward for about 20 yards before he was ultimately tackled. The coaches then moved him to running back. Lee likes the fullback role because it involves running and blocking, two things he’s done at the high school level.

Doubt crept into Lee during drills. His foot slipped out from under him once and a defender knocked the ball out at one point. Meanwhile, Dickey enjoyed learning various blocking techniques and pass routes. Vrbka learned he needs to be more physical when blocking. He also worked on his ball carrying, something he hopes carries through into an increased role in Shelby-Rising City’s offense this season.

“Anyone can be a running back, anyone can play O-line,” Vrbka said, “but it takes a guy to step into fullback and embrace that role.”

Uhlir embraces the mentality, possibly more than most. He’s been a fullback since he started playing football in the third grade. A year later, leaders at the YMCA told his father he had to not be so physical. In response, Todd started his own football club called Rampage. Years of a loaded baseball schedule helped him during pass catching drills. But what he really likes is the violence of hitting. He took notes on footwork and blocking technique while the non-teachable aspects of the job coursed through his body.

“You can’t really teach being violent. It’s either in you or it’s not,” Uhlir said. “Whether you want to put your body on the line, I don’t think you can really teach that.”

Campers participated in drills for the three hours. One hour each for running, catching and blocking. They moved through different circuits to learn all aspects of the  position. Coaches from Concordia, Midland and as far as UTEP helped with the camp. All of them still utilize the fullback and watched hundreds participate in the specialized camp.

They huddled at the end and celebrated the event, a first-ever for the program drenched in fullback history. Vrbka hopes he can get faster and lead Shelby-Rising City to semifinal game or beyond. Uhlir is off to camp at Iowa and Kansas State to workout with old friends (Kade Pieper and Garrett Oakley, respectively). He hopes to improve his skillset for the next level and win a state championship, regardless of his stats. Lee wished more of his team attended the camp to learn the finer points of blocking, catching and running. It was also cool working out where the Huskers practice. Dickey returned for Nebraska’s Friday Night Lights camp and a weekend swing at Memorial Stadium with high school teammate Tanner Hollinger.

Nebraska running backs coach EJ Barthel talked to Dickey after the camp and got his info. He also shared the name of Robert Burns. Burns was UConn’s fullback when Barthel coached there.

“He doesn’t get many carries for sure but his blocking on the perimeter is crazy and his footwork is unbelievable,” Dickey said. “So I was watching his film on Twitter and try to find more of his film to learn.”

So the native Nebraskan studied, hopeful to reunite the proud program with its fullback tradition.

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