Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Versatility and Mentality: The Factors Involved With Making a New Nebraska Fullback

April 13, 2023

Husker fans collectively rejoiced when offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield announced the return of the fullback. Head coach Matt Rhule also holds an affinity for the fullback, dating back to his northeast roots. Collectively, they want to run an offense that wins in all elements. That includes running the ball and, on occasion, pushing forward with power.

The last Rhule head coached team with Satterfield at offensive coordinator was the 2015 Temple team that cracked the top 20, beat Penn State and nearly upset top-10 Notre Dame. That team used a stable of capable young running backs and a mobile quarterback to win 10 games. But little of that included lining up with the bruising battering ram Husker fans love.

Running backs coach E.J. Barthel shares the head coach and coordinator’s collective love for the position. Barthel himself played fullback at UMass and Rutgers. He told local media back in February that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on a fullback. On April 1, the offense got into 21 personnel during the team’s first spring scrimmage and ran with a fullback involved.

“We’ve got some guys who are willing to put their pads in there and knock guys off the spot and use physicality with contact,” Barthel said last week. “That’s the key for the fullback position. Understanding contact is going to happen and you have to take a boxer’s mentality where you’ve got to stay focused, stay in tune to the block, using your technique and not just getting so wrapped up on contact.

“A lot of teaching still going on at that position but we’re getting close.”

Several players this spring have stepped into that role. Satterfield, historically, likes to slide a tight end back into a pseudo-fullback role. Seward graduate and Nebraska-Kearney transfer Trevor Ruth arrived this spring as a dedicated fullback and competes in running back drills. Satterfield also studied film from Nebraska’s 1995 season to get more diverse fullback ideas. Barthel said a fullback now, in this system, has to be diverse. He looks for someone who can line up in both 12 and 21 packages and be physical. In practicality, they’ve cast a wide net to fill that role this spring.

“Really,” Barthel said, “everyone’s got to be able to do it.”

Current fullbacks share historic similarities while taking on expansive new roles. Kyle Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers, for example, blocks exceptionally well in the open field. He’s also a capable runner and receiver out of the backfield with a combined 2,550 all-purpose offensive yards on 205 carries, 248 catches and 19 all-purpose touchdowns (14 receiving, five rushing). Juszczyk played 522 offensive snaps (47.45%) and 95 special teams snaps (21.69%) last season for the 49ers, making the Pro Bowl for the seventh consecutive season.

Other NFL fullbacks like four-time Pro Bowl standout Patrick Ricard and Las Vegas Raiders journeyman Jakob Johnson are mainly used for their run blocking skills. Rhule and significant members of his staff bring NFL experience to Lincoln. They’re also film junkies with extensive knowledge of various schemes and an intention to develop athletes into NFL-caliber players.

There’s a current trend indicating linebackers are faster and lighter in order to keep up with more pass-focused offenses. Some coaching circles believe an injection at fullback here could wash out those lighter linebackers and open running lanes. Offenses counter defensive shifts of speed with power. That could certainly be the case if the defense isn’t as willing to get as physical as the offense is willing to be.

Could this benefit Nebraska? Potentially. Rhule and his staff have certain traits they look for in recruiting—they’re looking for height, length and speed. Those who carry the ball also have to have a certain mentality fit for physicality. One fit for a fullback.

“For us, whenever we recruit or whenever we coach, we’re looking for guys with the right mentality,” Barthel said.

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