(The above headline should be read with Jim Mora echoing in your head.)
Of all the previews in this series, aside from the yet-to-be-written superfan deathmatch pitting Bill Dance against Scotty McCreery, the preview's content that is most likely to be totally irrelevant just happens to be today's topic: the fullbacks.
As has been documented ad nauseam, a Tom O'Brien-coached fullback has NEVER received so much as one carry. Derek Dooley thinks so much of the lead blocker that he moved his best fullback to linebacker and has exactly one scholarship fullback on the roster. While both teams do occasionally dabble in two-back sets, a third wideout in lieu of the fullback is a more common alignment, and UT will even flip Knute Rockne in his grave with the occasional 5-wide, empty backfield formation. Fans of the I-formation and smash-mouth football are likely to be sorely disappointed if they tune in August 31st's kickoff classic.
So, now that I have given you absolutely no motivation to bother reading on, read on anyway to see me contradict myself about the importance of the fullback and pay homage to one of the best in recent memory, N. C. State's Taylor Gentry.
The Gentry legend was seeded way back in the 1980s when the future Kathryn Gentry caught Taylor's daddy's eye as she twirled the baton during halftime of a Wolfpack home game. It was destined that Taylor would follow in his parents' footsteps, attend N. C. State , and make his mark on that same field, though he would much prefer twirling kick and punt returners rather than a baton. There was just one small problem: no scholarship offer. Despite leading the state with 21 touchdown receptions as a high school senior and adding another score in the Shrine Bowl, Gentry had 0 D-I scholarship offers.
Thankfully the App States and Woffords of the world took a pass, because Gentry would have taken any FBS or FCS offer. Instead, he walked on for the Pack, eventually earned a scholarship, and generally kicked ass every time he got on the field. Gentry's value came mostly on special teams, where he was the Pack's leading tackler in 2009 and 2010, but he was also an accomplished blitz picker upper and receiver out of the backfield. Gentry made 18 starts in his career, hauling in 38 passes for 313 yards and 5 touchdowns, and he would have added to that production (the curmudgeonly TOB even promised him a carry) if not for a foot injury that cost him most of his senior year.
Gentry is now an NFL-style "walk on"; he is trying to make the Kansas City Chiefs as a non-drafted free agent. The Chiefs have gone so far as to create a bio page for him on their website, though I'm not sure if the absence of content on that page bodes well for Gentry's future.
Hopefully the future is bright for the Pack at fullback. No, Pack fullbacks do not carry the ball or play every down, but they are useful as play-action pass catchers, safety valves, blitz picker uppers, and occasional lead blockers. After the early part of his career was beset by injuries, Logan Winkles (6-1, 252 RS SO) is set to become the starter for the Pack at fullback. Winkles, who has just 24 offensive snaps to his credit so far, certainly has the build to be a bruising lead blocker, but whether he has the hands to help in the passing game is TBD. He came to State after receiving back-to-back all-state honors in the Peach Tree State, where he was also Georgia's top-ranked heavyweight wrestler.
Walk-on Tyler Purvis (6-3, 230 JR), who took a lot of Gentry's snaps last year, returns to fill the receiving role of the fullback, but he lacks the body type or the blocking ability of the typical lead blocker. Purvis, whose brother Ryan played for TOB at BC and then for the NFL's Giants, has proven he has the hands for the job. Tyler caught 15 touchdown passes as a high school senior, and he had 5 grabs, 2 going for scores, last season. He will back up Winkles.
Channing Fugate (6-1, 239 JR) rushed for over 3,000 yards in high school and played fullback as a true freshman for UT, eventually winning the starting nod. He appeared on offense in all 25 games the Vols played over his first two years, but now he finds himself switched to defense, where he will try to earn time at linebacker. Fugate's switch leaves Ben Bartholomew (6-2, 251 RS SR) as the only scholarship fullback on the roster. Bartholomew has quite the UT lineage, as his grandfather captained the 1939 SEC championship squad and his brother, Will, helped bring home UT's national championship in 1998. Ben, a high school shot champion, also competes for the Vols' track and field team, but he does not figure very prominently in the offense, having made just 6 receptions for 54 yards last season.
Brendan Downs (6-5, 251 SO), who figures to be UT's top reserve at tight end, will also back up Bartholomew. Downs caught 3 balls for 34 yards as a true freshman.
Fullback is not a glamorous position, and neither of these teams exactly focuses on involving the fullback in the offense, but who knows...perhaps the kickoff classic comes down to 4th and inches from the goal line, and a play-action pass to Winkles or Bartholomew wins the game as one of these gents carries a would-be tackler across the plane for the winning score. Regardless of whether or not that fantasy comes true, and even though neither team has a smashmouth mentality on offense, both teams would love to see a fullback leading the way to some yardage and clock-churning 4th quarter drives while his team tries to salt away victory. And when you really need a physical lead blocker, the unsung fullback is indispensable.