MANKATO — Don’t tell C.J. Ham that fullbacks are a dying breed. Becoming one this offseason has thrown the obscure second-year pro a lifeline to making the Vikings’ 53-man roster.
As a running back, the former Division II standout at Augustana College would be lost far down the depth chart at that position behind the likes of Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. At best, he’d most likely end up back on the practice squad, where he spent 14 games as an undrafted rookie a year ago.
As a fullback, well, that’s a different story. He’s it. Literally. The only one on an 89-man roster. And, technically, the Vikings still list him as a running back, even though they’ve been transitioning him to fullback since the middle of OTAs.
“It’s pretty much a competition within myself,” Ham said Sunday as rookies and young veterans reported to Minnesota State Mankato for training camp. “But I wouldn’t say it’s my job to lose. I have to earn my spot.”
That’s exactly right. After all, dying breeds are expendable. Heck, the Associated Press even booted the fullback off its All-Pro ballots last year because there weren’t enough to choose from anymore.
Zach Line was the Vikings’ starting fullback last year. His contract ran out, and he’s still looking for work at a healthy 27 years of age. He wasn’t bad, but he also played only 211 snaps, an average of 14 in the 15 games he played.
“There’s hardly any [fullbacks] in college football anymore, so that makes it a little more difficult [to find one],” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “And the way teams are using … the spread offenses, there isn’t quite near as many opportunities.”
Ham comes young (24) and cheap ($465,000 non-guaranteed). But the Vikings do have backup plans if the quick learner can’t execute in live action. Some of their tight ends, primarily David Morgan, have the skill set to serve as a lead blocker out of the backfield.
“That’s part of the [evaluation]; Do we keep a fullback on the roster or do we add more tight ends,” Zimmer said. “That should all shake out here in this preseason. If a guy is going to play say 10 plays a game, he’s also got to be really good on special teams to make the squad.”
Ham was on the 53-man roster for the last two games last season. He dressed but did not play at Green Bay, and was inactive against the Bears.
But, according to Zimmer, Ham was good at pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield as a practice squad player last season. But the true test will start when the pads go on later this week.
“We never really got a chance to look at him being a true lead blocker, so that will really be the biggest question for him,” Zimmer said. “He’s good at knowing where to be. When he has to block these big linebackers, that will be the test.”
The 5-11 Ham said he spent last season at 235 pounds. He’s now 242. The Vikings also gave him a new helmet befitting the position.
“It’s called the 360 Flex helmet,” Ham said. “It’s got a little cutout in the front, so it gives a little more [at impact]. It feels the same. They said it’s better for avoiding concussions. I have no idea. They said it’s better, so I said, ‘Yes, I’ll take it.’”
Ham was born in Illinois and moved to Duluth when he was 2. He grew up a big Vikings fan, loving how, “Randy Moss just put his hand up and went over everybody.”
After rushing for more than 1,800 yards at Duluth Denfeld High, Ham went on to lead the Northern Sun Conference in rushing yards and touchdowns. He had 1,097 yards and tied a school record with 16 rushing touchdowns as a senior.
The Vikings signed him after giving him a rookie minicamp tryout. Now, if he can just manhandle those big linebackers, he’s got the most uncluttered path to the final 53.
“I’m excited to take what I’ve learned and put it out there on the field,” Ham said. “I love being physical. Fullback is not a position that’s as big as it used to me. It’s not a glamorous position. But your teammates know if you’re out there getting your job done or not. If you’re out there smacking guys around, you’ll earn the respect.”