Ron Brown compares the evolution of Nebraska’s fullbacks to pitchers in baseball.
Back in the 1980s and '90s, guys like Tom Rathman and Cory Schlesinger were part of your starting rotation.
Today, Brown said, the fullbacks are more like middle relievers.
“They’re very valuable, very important,” said Brown, the Nebraska running backs coach. “Last year, we had some games where we used them a lot, and other games where we didn’t use them as much.
“But they always had a role at some level.”
Brown points to last year’s game against Penn State, when Nebraska used a healthy dose of two-back sets and ran for 267 yards in a 32-23 victory.
Never mind the fullbacks didn’t have a carry that day. They did the dirty work.
“Those guys,” Brown said, “had to man-up and get after it.”
He expects more of the same from fifth-year senior C.J. Zimmerer and sophomore Andy Janovich, who are battling this spring for the No. 1 spot. Both are showing marked improvement.
“C.J. is one of the most improved players on the football team right now,” Brown said. “His strength level is way up. He’s squatting over 500 pounds. Just his overall acceleration, power, pad level, he’s made great progress.
“He’s a very sharp kid. He’s got great savvy as a fullback. He figures things out. He played well last year in that realm, but he’s more powerful and more explosive this year.”
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Janovich, meanwhile, possesses natural athleticism that Brown said he’s not often seen in the fullback spot in his 23 years at Nebraska.
“The thing with Andy, he’s so lean. He’s still got that wrestling metabolism going or something,” Brown said of Janovich, a Class B state wrestling champion in 2012 at Gretna High School. “I’d like to get a few more pounds on him if I could. But he’s an outstanding athlete.”
It’s that kind of athleticism that fits nicely in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s system, and how he wants to use fullbacks in a variety of ways — more than just isolation plays, circa 1985.
“We might go iso one play, and then the next play we’re running speed-sweep to the left, and you’ve got to get wide, things like that,” the 6-foot, 230-pound Zimmerer said. “You’ve got to be pretty versatile, and Coach Brown does a good job of giving us drills to kind of work on every little thing, whether it’s catching balls or getting your feet up over bags, working cut blocks. Try to be as well-rounded as you can.”
Brown also likes the work ethic of Zimmerer and Janovich. Neither has to be handed a written invitation to visit the film room in their off time.
“They’ll come in and study,” Brown said. “Love who they are, love their unselfishness, both good special-teams players. They contribute more than just the fullback position.”
Watching film, Zimmerer said, has become more natural to him over time. He didn’t have the resources to do as much of it in high school, but now, he’s discovered that by knowing what’s going to happen on the field before it happens, he can gain an edge in his position battle.
“Andy’s probably a better athlete than I am, so if my edge is going to be in the film room, then that’s what I’m going to do,” Zimmerer said. “I know if I’m not doing that, he’s going to go right past me.”
Brown said Janovich still is listed as a walk-on; another walk-on, redshirt freshman Carson Collins, also is in the mix at fullback.
Meanwhile, senior Mike Marrow, who led all Husker fullbacks with 10 carries last season, is now at I-back.
“He’s a big guy, but he’s really more instinctively suited for the I-back spot, more so than the fullback spot,” Brown said.
Sophomore I-back Imani Cross could play fullback “if we ever needed him in a pinch,” Brown said. “But he’s playing so well at I-back.”