Fullbacks are alive and well in Big Ten


Andy Janovich is the envy of every Big Ten fullback and a rock star to Nebraska fans this week.

In an era when players at his position mostly are consigned to the role of blocker — if the team even has a fullback — Janovich touched the ball six times last Saturday.

We’re not talking 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stuff here, either. Those six touches netted 121 yards from scrimmage against Southern Mississippi, the most since 2012 by a major-college fullback not playing in a triple-option offense, according to STATS.

Though Janovich’s numbers are an aberration among players at his position, Big Ten fullbacks as a group do tend to be more active than their peers in other conferences.

Michigan’s fullbacks under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh already have surpassed their 2014 total of touches. Wisconsin regularly puts two on the field, where Derek Watt has eight catches after having none last year.

Nine of the 14 Big Ten teams list the position on their depth charts, the most among the Power Five conferences.

Football may never go back to the pre-1980s days when a team might even feature the fullback. If a team has a versatile fullback, he gives defensive coordinators one more thing to think about.

“They have to defend that extra piece from a blocking perspective and all the different things that you can do with him, and out of the backfield,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think that he becomes a guy that people have to deal with.”

True fullbacks are few and far between in high school football. ESPN, in fact, lists only five in its list of recruiting prospects as opposed to 50 to 100 at other positions.

College fullbacks typically transition from another position like linebacker or tight end.

“I think fullbacks find you as much as you find them,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley said he’s always found the position useful, particularly when he was offensive coordinator at Southern California in the mid-1990s.

“Our fullback was the guy that didn’t win the tailback job,” Riley said. “So he became a lead blocker and also became a guy that would catch 50 balls a year coming out of the backfield. We haven’t quite got into that kind of game with the fullback here, but that’s where it’s been historically, and I do like it a lot.”

In addition to Janovich’s big day for Nebraska, Miles Thomas popped out of the backfield to catch two passes for Minnesota against Ohio, including one for a third-down conversion that led to a touchdown two plays later. Sione Houma, one of three fullbacks who get snaps for Michigan, had at least one carry on three of four series in the second quarter against BYU.

Nebraska fans used to approach Janovich and ask when his time would come as a ball carrier. Janovich’s typical reply: “Don’t count on it.”

The last time the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder touched the ball before Saturday was when he was a freshman in 2012. On the first play of the second quarter he busted a trap, made a linebacker miss and wasn’t brought down until 25 yards later — the longest run by a Nebraska fullback since 2004.

On the next series, Janovich caught a short pass, picked up a block from receiver Lane Hovey and went for 53 yards — the longest reception by a Nebraska fullback since at least 1979. The play prompted TV analyst Rocky Boiman to say, “I can see it now: ‘Andy Janovich for President.’ That’s going to be the T-shirt around Nebraska.”

Janovich had two more carries in the third quarter, with the second going for 28 yards and requiring three men to tackle him. His flashiest run didn’t even count. That came in the fourth quarter when he bumped into a wall of defenders at the line, spun and went around left end untouched 9 yards to the end zone. A holding penalty nullified the touchdown.

Janovich said he thought he might get a carry or two against Southern Miss and hoped to pick up as many yards as he could. His totals, he said, left him in awe, and he hopes to get more touches. But he said he wouldn’t complain if he doesn’t.

“I fell into that position where I came to terms that I’m going to be a blocker. I dealt with that,” he said. “No big deal.”

By Eric Olson

AP College Football Writer

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