Traditional toughness: Iowa, Wisconsin keep fullback position from going extinct in the B1G
Monte Pottebaum carries the banner for a dwindling breed. He’s a Big Ten fullback in the toughest, truest sense of the word.
A former walk-on linebacker from small-town Iowa, he’ll play a crucial but easily overlooked role for Kirk Ferentz’s offense this season. Outside of the Hawkeye State, only the keenest of college football fans with think twice about him. That’s because, even in the traditionally rough-and-tumble Big Ten, his position barely exists.
Only 3 B1G programs list fullbacks on their 2022 rosters, and it’s questionable if Maryland’s 1 guy will ever man the spot in a game. Want to watch old-school power football? Follow Iowa and Wisconsin. Per the teams’ official websites, the Hawkeyes’ FB room goes 4 deep, the Badgers’ 3. And at least a couple of those brutes, Pottebaum for sure, will play key roles this year.
Elsewhere, around the conference and the country, the classic fullback is no more, a victim of changing times. Spread offenses are all the rage. Coaches covet speed and freakish athleticism across all the positions, especially those eligible to touch the ball.
- Ohio State hasn’t listed a fullback on its roster since Zach Boren was switched to linebacker in 2012.
- James Franklin phased out the position within a year after taking the Penn State job in 2014.
- Michigan listed 10 FBs on its roster as recently as 2017. A year later it had 6, then in 2019 it had none. Of the returning FBs the following season, 3 were re-designated as RBs and 1 added 16 pounds and became a 270-pound DL.
- MSU had 2 FBs as recently as 2019. They both got tagged as TEs in 2020.
The list goes on. The fullback designation is gone, at least for now, at Nebraska (last appeared in 2017), Minnesota (2016), Rutgers (2015), Illinois (2014), Indiana (2014), Purdue (2013) and Northwestern (sometime before 2008).
Is the position really dead?
So, what is an H-back, anyway? The definition varies among the teams that use the designation, but essentially an H-back is a hybrid TE/FB. Most of those guys tilt more toward the TE part of the role, though, given that college teams are passing more than ever before. No one is lining up in the I-formation anymore — well, no one outside of Iowa and Wisconsin anyway. All guts, no glory is a tough sell nowadays. It has been for a couple decades, actually. And it’s hard to line up 2 backs behind a quarterback operating from the shotgun.
What’s up with Maryland’s 1 FB?
The Terrapins hadn’t listed a fullback on their roster in more than a decade before 3-star recruit Joseph Bearns III arrived on campus last year. Is 4th-year coach Mike Locksley suddenly thinking back inside the box here? Or do he and his staff just not know what to do with the now 6-1, 280-pound Bearns?
Coming out of Baltimore’s Saint Frances Academy at 245 pounds, Bearns was projected to excel as a blocking tight end — with room to grow as a receiver. Now, it’s hard to tell if he has any path to playing time, or if he’s just the answer to a trivial question: Name the only listed fullback in the B1G East. The latter seems more likely, given that Maryland spreads the field with elite receivers in deference to supremely skilled QB Taulia Tagovailoa.
Blasts from the past
Outside of Pottebaum and whomever succeeds John Chenal in the role for Wisconsin, you’d have to look at old video — most of it from the previous century — to see true fullbacks in action.
Once upon a time, many of the current B1G programs produced great ones. In the early 1980s, Tom Rathman at Nebraska and Vaughn Broadnax at Ohio State turned lead-blocking into a brutal art form. Rathman cleared the way for Mike Rozier and others while a Husker from 1981-85. Broadnax, at 6-2/252, flattened opposing linebackers for Tim Spencer and Keith Byars from 1980-83.
The job description is blue-collar, lunch pail simple. Get up a head of steam, lead the tailback through a hole and meet a linebacker head-on. Talk about epic collisions: In many cases, those train wrecks involved 2 former stud high school running backs who had plenty of size but not quite enough speed or shiftiness to play a glamour offensive position in college.
Still want a path to the NFL? Put your nose down and grind, young man.
No one knows that better than Jon Witman, part of a 2-man fullback rotation on Penn State’s undefeated 1994 team.
“If you didn’t go in there 100 percent looking to knock somebody’s head off, you weren’t playing,” Witman told longtime PSU columnist David Jones of the Patriot-News in an outstanding 2-part feature in 2018 about the physical and psychological toll playing the position extracts.
Witman kept at it for 6 years in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, paying a painful price. Not that he’d have it any other way.
“It’s hard to even watch Penn State [now], because you’re so in tune with the blood-and-guts and just beating people down it used to be,” he told Jones. ““I can’t stand it, man. This fast-paced stuff. I just don’t like watching it.”
Tradition lives atop B1G West
Wisconsin and Iowa are the power programs of the B1G West, and they have the fullbacks to prove it. Love this brand of football? The teams meet Nov. 12 in Iowa City.
Chenal, in his final season as a Badger, led the way for freshman sensation Braelon Allen. While the 17-year-old Allen was racking up more than 1,000 rushing yards, Chenal did the dirty work. He did get to carry the rock a career-high 32 times and score the final 2 of his 5 career rushing TDs. Jackson Acker and Riley Nowakowski are among those vying to take over the job.
At Iowa, Pottebaum returns as the preeminent B1G fullback. The 6-1, 244-pound battering ram with the flowing blond hair will lead the way for sophomores Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams, who are competing to succeed Tyler Goodson in the feature back role.
“I’m going to throw my body in there for the team, and we’ll see what happens,” Pottebaum said during an interview last season. The sentiment surely still applies as he prepares for his senior year.
It’s not about the stat sheet for Pottebaum. It can’t be. He finally posted some rushing yards in 2021, carrying 15 times for 76 yards — a solid 5.1-yard average — and his lone career touchdown. Before that, he’d had 2 carries for 0 yards. As a receiver, he’s made 7 grabs for 48 yards over the past 2 seasons.
F U L L B A C K S
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 2, 2021
He’s the best returning starting fullback in the Big Ten. (Okay, he’s the only returning starting fullback in the Big Ten.) But he’s still easily overshadowed. Ferentz didn’t mention him while listing key returnees on offense and defense during his main Media Days address last week.
That’s all right. Pottebaum knows the drill.
“It’s a dying breed,” he said of his position, “but we’re trying to bring it back to life.”