Gophers' lone fullback works without carries

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 12:29 PM

Mike Henry, the lone fullback on the Gophers roster, knows his value to the team lies in blocking, not ball-carrying.

Gophers fullback Mike Henry

Photo: Jerry E Lee, Jerry E. Lee

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Mike Henry practices on a field named for one of the greatest fullbacks in college football history, but if Bronko Nagurski were here to watch the Gophers prepare for the 2012 season, he might not recognize the position Henry plays.

The junior from Mahtomedi is the only fullback listed on Minnesota's roster this year, a pretty good indication of the position's prominence in the Gophers offense. Henry understands he'll never have the opportunity to lead the nation in rushing, as Nagurski once did for the Gophers, or drag would-be tacklers with him into the end zone.

That's because fullback is no longer a ball-carrying position in modern offenses. Henry lined up in the Gophers' backfield a few times during his sophomore season, but never took a handoff. He swung wide into the flat on occasion, but never was thrown a pass.

Didn't he ever feel like waving his arms and demanding the quarterback throw him the ball? "Nah," Henry said with a smile. "I'd probably be too short for MarQueis [Gray] to see me."

Yes, Henry's 6-1 height and tractor-trailer build -- he's up to 245 pounds after a summer in the weight room -- make him uniquely suited for what the fullback position has become. He's not tall enough to be a tight end, but he's too heavy to be a ball-carrier.

"I guess I'm kind of a hybrid," Henry said. "If I'm a fullback, it's more of a blocking fullback."

Great, except Jerry Kill's offense last year favored one-back setups with three wideouts, or occasionally an extra tight end, but rarely a blocking back. Which must make Henry feel like the best designated hitter in the National League, right?

"No, I like my role," he said. "Third- and-goal, maybe fourth-and-short if we're going for it, I'm typically in a power stack. Get me in there on the strength side and let me do my job. I'll block 100 plays in a row if they want, and if I get the ball once, that's great."

And if he doesn't, that's great, too. Henry, who is on track to graduate a year early with a degree in business and marketing education, is occasionally utilized as an H-back, too -- the positions are almost interchangeable, Kill said, though the bigger tight ends usually handle those duties. Still, Henry is optimistic he'll be on the field frequently this fall; mostly, he's happy to be on it at all, after a concussion kept him out of all but a handful of spring practices.

His coach sees the value in having a fullback around, too, even if he's not going to be used like a workhorse.

"He gives us more looks, more options," Kill said. "It's like a tight end going out and playing receiver -- the more flexibility you have [and] the more diverse your personnel, the more deceiving your offense can be."

But don't they want the ball every once in awhile? "I've been coaching for 30 years," Kill said, "and we've never had one complain yet."

Etc.

•The Gophers were in shorts and shoulder pads Monday, their third day of practice, but will be in full uniform and ready to add hitting and tackling to their workouts by Wednesday.

•Kill spent virtually all of Monday's practice working with the freshmen and newcomers, leaving the starters to his staff.

•After wearing their new no-gloss helmets over the weekend, to get them broken in for the season, the Gophers went back to their practice helmets -- which are actually last year's game model -- Monday. A sticker reading "GT51," honoring late linebacker Gary Tinsley, is on the back of each helmet.

  • SEASON OPENER GOPHERS AT UNLV 10 p.m. Aug. 30 • TV: CBS Sports Network (100.3-FM)

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