Fully on board: Gophers proving fullback position isn't extinct

Here in the Big Ten, the fullback is alive and well. The Minnesota Gophers are proof of that.

Fullbacks Tyler Hartmann (above) and Miles Thomas have split reps with the Gophers' first-team offense this month and are expected to do so when Minnesota opens its 2014 campaign next Thursday.

Courtesy: University of Minnesota Athletics Communications

MINNEAPOLIS -- Lakes, farms and oceans.

One burly youngster working in the Gophers' fullback group is a born-and-bred Minnesota native, northern accent and all. The other speaks with more of a rural Midwestern drawl, the result of a Kansas upbringing in a town of less than 900. The third screams Florida beach, his bushy dreadlocks crawling out of his helmet and over his thick, dark-brown neck.

Tyler Hartmann, Miles Thomas and Jephete Mathilus are members of an underappreciated, oft-overlooked fraternity. Their position is one that's phased out in some flashier regions of the college football consciousness.

But here in the Big Ten, the fullback is alive and well.

And unheralded, which is just fine with the trio on this year's Minnesota roster.

"We don't expect any glory," Hartmann said.

To start the season, at least, it'll be some form of a committee that takes over for Mike Henry, who graduated, and Gabe Mezzenga, who retired from football to focus on his career path. Hartmann and Thomas have split reps with the first-team offense this month and are expected to do so when Minnesota draws the curtain on 2014 next Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium -- the same site where Jerry Kill's bunch wrapped up fall camp with a light scrimmage Thursday. Matilus is the next in line after moving over from linebacker this offseason.

None of them possess Henry-like reliability, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. But collectively, they provide more peace of mind at the position.

"I think the depth part is better," Limegrover said. "We don't have a guy that gives us what Mike Henry gives us right now, so you kind of have to weigh the good with the bad.

"(Henry) was an undervalued guy in our whole deal. You didn't realize all the little things he did that kind of made the other parts move."

Never was that more evident than in the Iowa loss last fall. With Henry out nursing a rib injury, Minnesota rushed 27 times for just 30 yards. Limegrover and Kill resorted to putting tight ends Maxx Williams and Drew Goodger in the backfield thanks to a dearth of viable fullbacks behind Henry.

That's a big reason why Mathilus and Hartmann both have switched from defense to offense during their careers.

"Tyler Hartmann and Miles Thomas, those two guys have really had a good fall camp from the standpoint of we gained confidence in them," Limegrover said. "That's what you need to have, and eventually, I think, with those reps, they'll get to what Mike Henry was."

It's not a complicated set of demands. Minnesota's power zone-read-heavy offense requires fullbacks to lead block, protect the pocket and occasionally leak out as a pass-catching threat. Henry caught eight passes for 86 yards last season, and Mezzenga -- who only appeared in seven games -- caught one pass for 12 yards.

Minnesota handed off to a fullback once last year, and that was Williams.

"I see us being traditional fullbacks," said Hartmann, an Andover, Minn. product who began his career in 2012 as a defensive lineman. "We want to make things happen for the team and just contribute as much as we can."

At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Hartmann is the largest of the bunch. Downs, Kan. native Thomas is 5-11 and 235, and Matilus, from Delray Beach, Fla., checks in at 6-1 and 230.

But Limegrover says their skill sets are mostly identical.

"They have subtle things that one might be a little better than the other at, but nothing that really stands out to say 'hey, this is our guy, this is the clear-cut No. 1,'" Limegrover said.

Hartmann's parents Brian and Eileen Hartmann met at Minnesota in the early 90s -- he played baseball for coach John Anderson, she ran cross country -- and raised Tyler in Andover. He was an all-state honorable mention defender before an injury cost him most of his senior campaign.

Thomas, on the other hand, played eight-man high school football in Downs, population 885 as of 2012, before spending a year at Butler County (Kan.) Community College and joining the Gophers in the spring. Bill Snyder and Kansas State recruited him diligently, but fellow Kansas native Kill and his staff jumped in and nabbed him at the last minute.

Matilus is a product of the high school hotbed that is Florida, attending high school at Atlantic. He redshirted in 2011 and appeared in 17 games across 2012 and 2013, mostly on special teams. Last season, he earned Minnesota's "Offensive Work Team Player of the Year" after serving as a scout-team running back in addition to his reserve linebacker duties.

So playing in the offensive backfield ought to come somewhat naturally.

He has yet to join the first-team platoon at fullback, though. That job, for now, belongs to Hartmann and Thomas.

"They'll both roll in there and get their time," Limegrover said. "Eventually, maybe one separates himself, but right now, they're so similar in what they do that it's hard to distinguish."

No complaints from Thomas.

"I feel like that's what's gonna happen," he said. "I hope it does, too, because in the Big Ten, you take a beating."

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