For the 118th edition of Minnesota’s best rivalry, the Vikings are altering a traditional recipe.
They’re countering the culture of cheese with copious amounts of Ham.
Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Vikings will unintentionally be honoring the legacy of Jim Taylor and John Kuhn. Their new offense is reviving the dust-covered position of fullback, in part because they like the position, in part because they have someone they like at the position: C.J. Ham.
“I came from a fullback system in college, so I pretty much love when a fullback is in front of me,” Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said. “I cherish C.J. That’s my guy. I love having him on the field with me. He’s the brains.”
In the Vikings’ 28-12 victory over Atlanta, Ham played on 22 of the Vikings’ 53 offensive plays. Third receiver Chad Beene played 14 plays and second tight end Irv Smith played 26. Cook took advantage of the extra blockers, in the form of Ham and Smith, to rush 21 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
With receiver Josh Doctson being placed on injured reserve, the Vikings head to Lambeau with four healthy receivers. Ham can lead the way for Cook and protect Cousins in a scheme that emphasizes protecting and aiding the quarterback rather than giving him maximum downfield receivers.
Ham’s ability to pass block, run block, run and catch could give him rare job security for an NFL fullback, especially one who went undrafted out of Augustana University. He played running back in college, but kept an eye on fullbacks like Lorenzo Neal and Greg Jones, as well as Jerome Felton, who helped Adrian Peterson rush for 2,000 yards in 2012.
“I identified with whoever was good,” he said. “As a kid, my nickname was ‘The Bus,’ after Jerome Bettis.”
The Vikings’ offense now features two undrafted players from smaller Upper Midwest colleges: Ham and Adam Thielen, who played at Minnesota State Mankato. “We don’t really talk about it much, other than to trash-talk each other,” Ham said. “Our schools play each other this week.”
As a college running back, Ham ran to daylight. As an NFL fullback, he runs toward shoulder pads.
“I wish the job was as simple as hitting the first guy you see,” he said. “In this offense, being the ‘F’ position, the fullback, you pretty much have to know the entire offense. You have to know what the offensive line is doing. You have to know their calls, because there are calls that have us working with them, and the calls tell you where they’re going.
“It just comes down to reading the defensive structure. All defenses basically have the same type of run fits based upon coverage, so based upon coverages you know where the guy is going to end up. If you see two high safeties, you know the guy that I’m blocking, he should attack me on my inside shoulder, or my outside shoulder, based on the alignment of the defensive backs.”
As a former running back and college shotputter, Ham is an NFL version of a decathlete. He has to be fast enough to run the ball, strong enough to block defensive linemen, smart enough to block the correct passrusher and agile enough to run routes.
“When you’ve got a smart player like C.J., it’s easy to put him in any formation or any personnel group and keep him on the field,” Cook said. “He can catch the ball, too.
“A lot of people underestimate how much of a playmaker he is.”
Growing up as a football player in Duluth, Ham lived the Vikings-Packers rivalry. Sunday, he’ll play an increasingly important role on the unfrozen tundra, in a stadium where Taylor became a legend and Kuhn a folk hero.
“It’s awesome,” Ham said. “Superior is literally five minutes away. You never knew if someone was a Vikings fan or a Packers fan. To be a part of the rivalry that I grew up watching, that means a lot.”