ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At Michigan, the fullback definitely has not gone the way of the dinosaur.
A blend of ball carrier, run blocker, pass protector and pass catcher, the position is alive and well in Ann Arbor. And Khalid Hill, a redshirt junior from Detroit, has found his niche at the position for the No. 4 Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten).
In last Saturday’s 49-10 win against Penn State, Hill’s 15-yard catch on Michigan’s first scoring drive got the Wolverines to the Nittany Lions’ 2-yard line. Four plays later — on fourth and goal — Hill scored Michigan’s first touchdown, a 1-yard run 5 minutes into the game.
In four games this season, the 6-foot-3, 263-pound Hill has 6 catches for 47 yards to go with 9 carries for 17 yards and 4 touchdowns. With only 15 touches, Hill does the majority of his work clearing out defenders for his fellow ball carriers and keeping pass rushers off the quarterbacks. In a role/position that has all but gone by the wayside in many offenses in football, Hill has become an integral part of Michigan’s attack.
“The fullback is a tough position,” Hill said. “You have to be able to isolate, go low or go straight over to the linebacker and hit somebody. You can’t be afraid of contact. You’ve got to be willing to go out there and give it your all.
“People kind of sleep on the fullback position because a fullback doesn’t play a lot. But we do a lot of hard work. It’s not easy to go in and say, ‘I’m about to go hit a guy, full speed, and hit a linebacker right in his face.’ A lot of people don’t want to do that.”
Hill does. So do a few others.
In 2015, nine Big Ten teams either had a fullback on the roster or utilized a fullback in the offensive scheme. Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0), Michigan’s opponent on Saturday, also uses the fullback, as do teams such as Stanford, Air Force, Army and Navy. (At the service academies, the fullback is a vital part of the triple-option offense.)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said this week he believes Hill has a professional future at the position. Attaining that kind of praise, though, didn’t come without some struggle for Hill. He came to Michigan in 2013 as a tight end but redshirted that season, then suffered a torn ACL just six games into the 2014 season. In 2015, he played in 12 games and made two starts, but caught only four passes and did not score.
When he learned in the spring he was moving to fullback, he was rejuvenated.
“It gave me another shot, to get out there and help the team and contribute,” Hill said. “I’m proud of that. And I keep working to get better.”
Hill admitted that when he first made the move to fullback, he went through a bit of an identity crisis. But as he struggled to find his identity as a tight end in his first seasons at Michigan, he also saw day-in and day-out two players who grew to embrace the role of an unglamorous position: fullbacks Sione Houma and Joe Kerridge, both of whom graduated in the spring.
Houma became a mentor to Hill in those early spring practices this year, constantly offering him advice. “Work in silence and let your pads and hits do the talking,” Houma would remind Hill.
“His role as a fullback is just as important as any other position on the team,” said Houma, who had his own transition to make at Michigan after starring as a primary running back at Highlands High in Salt Lake City. “Being able to be effective in the run game and being able to catch out of the back field is always what the coaches can look for in a fullback.”
Houma, a stoic guy himself, understood the role of the fullback at Michigan. Last season, he had 43 carries for 184 yards and 5 touchdowns, and 8 catches for 77 yards.
“Being able to be used in the run game and being able to catch from the backfield just shows the other team that we are threats to their defense as well,” Houma said. “Fullbacks that have come through Michigan have always left the university and have made an impact on the team.”
Houma extends his advice to fullbacks beyond Hill, to all of those who take on the less-than-sexy role on the field: Keep your head down, work hard, and the effort you put in will pay off.
“Your time will come and you will shine,” Houma told Hill.
It’s likely that Hill is taking Houma’s advice to heart.
“It’s tough, but it’s also fun,” Hill said. “You get the ball occasionally, you get a touchdown, you get into the end zone, and that’s fun. But it’s a tough position. You’ve got to be mentally prepared and physically prepared to go through the grind that’s at the position.”