So long to the fullback?

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
9:00
AM PT
In Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “Mrs. Robinson,” the duo asks: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

If the famed singing duo were to change the lyrics of their celebrated song to relate to the 2014 Trojans fullback position, they might croon, “Where have you gone, Sam Cunningham, a Trojans nation turns its lonely eyes to you (Woo, woo, woo). What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson, Sam Bam has left and gone away (Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey).”

In the evolution of football, the once famous fullback position could be the gridiron’s version of the dinosaur. Your children may one day ask, “Hey, dad, what’s a fullback and did the Trojans ever really have one?”

Through no fault of their own, new Trojans head football coach Steve Sarkisian and his colleagues across the country have been rapidly changing the face of collegiate offenses by adjusting to the new rules, formations, speed of the game and the spread-the-defense mentality. It’s now all now part of the college football and even NFL landscapes. It would appear the days of the fullback as we know it are numbered.

[+] EnlargeSoma Vainuku
Chris Williams/Icon SMIHow will the Trojans use fullbacks such as Soma Vainuku?
Looking toward 2014, one of the Trojans’ major questions has become will Sarkisian figure out a way to use returning fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner in some capacity? Since they are productive players, it figures he will. Those are two very talented players who improved over the course of the 2013 season.

While he is still evolving in a new direction for his own offensive philosophy, Sarkisian can still remember how useful the fullback was during his assistant days under former Trojans coach Pete Carroll.

Carroll, a defensive guru by trade, realized how much damage could be inflicted on an offense from a fullback, especially coming out of the backfield like he did with current Indianapolis Colt fullback Stanley Havili. One doesn’t have to jog a Trojans memory too far back to recall how Havili (2006-10), whose running ability was only superseded by his pass routes out of the backfield, caused havoc to mismatched linebackers.

The thought of no fullback in a Trojans backfield causes one to reminisce those beasts who once blocked for all those Heisman Trophy winning tailbacks. In fact, one of the great USC trivia questions has always been who blocked for all-time tailbacks Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Charles White, and Marcus Allen?

Of course the great irony with 1979 Heisman Trophy winner Charles White is that his lead blocker was a young fullback named Marcus Allen. Allen has always maintained that his service as a fullback helped develop his skills as a devastating tailback.

In the case of Davis, Hall of Famer Sam “Bam” Cunningham (1970-72) led the way and when Santa Barbara Sam was crushing linebackers to clear the way for A.D., he was also busy diving over the top for a Trojans score. Cunningham’s four touchdown leaps over Woody Hayes’ Ohio State defensive in the 1973 Rose Bowl are legendary.

There probably has never been a more bruising and brutal fullback in Trojans lore than the late Mosi Tatupu (1974-77), the Hawaiian bone crusher, whose All-American son, Lofa, starred for Carroll’s 2004 national champions as a linebacker. Mosi was expertly used during his junior and senior year under Hall of Fame coach John Robinson, who once said, “Trying to tackle Mosi is like trying to tackle a Coke machine.”

Robinson had another two-way fullback/tailback in Lynn Cain (1977-78), who followed Tatupu. Cain was an All-American JC tailback out of East Los Angeles College, but Robinson turned the former L.A. Roosevelt prep star into a multi-purpose tailback/fullback. By having Cain as a running and blocking threat, opposing defenses couldn’t exclusively key on White. Cain was instrumental in helping the Trojans to the 1978 national championship.

Not all the Trojans’ fullbacks have been national household names. There was Danny Scott (1966-68), who teamed with Simpson. Scott, who played at Pico Rivera (Calif.) El Rancho High and transferred to USC from Cerritos (Calif.) College, was a human battering ram at just 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds.

In the mid-80s, the Trojans had another stud fullback out of Banning High in Carson, California. Leroy Holt (1986-89) was known more for carrying the football than just blocking. Holt’s playing skills may not have been as important as his leadership skills in helping guide the Trojans into the 1989 Rose Bowl game. Most players referred to Holt as the team’s spiritual leader. Making fullback Holt unique is that he still ranks No. 21 in USC career rushing (1,825 yards), and those numbers say he is the greatest running fullback in USC history.

There have been other fullbacks who played a major role in the storied history of USC. Consider yourself a Trojans historian if you remember the names of Big Ben Wilson, Ron Heller, Mike “Bambi” Hull, David Farmer, Deon Strother, Scott Lockwood and Terry Barnum. No, not forgotten is the late All-America tailback Ricky Bell, whose Trojans offensive career began as a John McKay fullback.

So the Trojans have their history of extraordinary fullbacks, but the question is rapidly becoming this: Have we seen the last of the USC fullback?

Greg Katz | email

Columnist, WeAreSC.com

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