Khalid Hill started reaching out on social media. He realized he was one of the few who played his position -- he knew that before the process of going from college to the NFL even began -- and he wanted to connect with those who would understand.
Start a conversation. Create a bond. Fullbacks play one of the most brutal, unforgiving positions in the game. Yet they also realize, these days, how rare they are.
A half-century ago, fullbacks were an integral part of college and professional offenses. Now, they barely exist. The evolution of offense eliminated the position at some college programs. NFL teams, with 53-man roster limits, don’t always elect to carry a fullback. It is, other than long-snapper, perhaps the least-heralded position in football. Every team needs to have a long-snapper, even if it is someone who also plays another position.
Not every team needs a fullback. Even when a team might, sometimes that ends up being a guy moonlighting, as the Detroit Lions did with linebacker Nick Bellore last season. That has left the college fullback in a tough position when trying to make a transition to the NFL.
“Being a fullback is such a dead position. People don’t really use it,” Hill said. “So you’re going to not really find many teams that are going to draft a fullback, you know what I’m saying? They’re not going to really do that because they are going to use you -- what? -- two or three times a game, depending on the offense. So you want to be as versatile as you can and do as much as you can because coaches like to see that.”
A fullback is a throwback in name but a utility player in practice. These days, he'd better be able to handle throws from his quarterback or possibly be able to throw passes himself as part of a trick play. He’s a guy without a defined position on a team, if there’s a roster spot for him at all.
Jaylen Samuels, considered a fullback and H-back at North Carolina State, was a tight end at the combine. Hill began at Michigan as a tight end before moving to fullback and is consuming hours of Delanie Walker highlights to try to become a fullback/H-back/tight end.
Nick Bawden went to San Diego State as a quarterback and started one game as a freshman before being asked to convert. Oklahoma’s Dimitri Flowers came in as a fullback who could do it all -- because that’s what he did in high school.
It makes the draft process more challenging. The spots just aren't available.
“Can you say the word 'dinosaur?'” New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman asked.
There is a path for college fullbacks to make the NFL, and it’s well-worn: special teams.
Bawden’s experience on special teams was the most popular topic during interviews with NFL coaches and front offices. At Michigan, Hill said former Wolverines special-teams coach John Baxter taught a class -- notebook and everything -- on special teams, and that was continued in a different form by coaches last season. Flowers, perhaps considered the top fullback in the class, knows that to reach the NFL, “a lot of it has to do with the ability to play special teams.”
“That’s one thing that came up every single time,” Bawden said. “If I could play teams. It was mainly just talking about the coverage teams because they’ve seen my film on the returns. They wanted to hear it, coming from me, if I knew what to do and if they throw me out there, will I be good out there.”
Bawden, who blocked for NCAA rushing leaders Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny the past two seasons, of course said yes. But there’s no real way to know until he ends up on a roster. For a fullback to make a roster, NFL evaluators universally said, he has to play special teams. After his dinosaur quip, Gettleman said that’s the way a fullback will make the Giants.
“You’re only allowed to have so many guys active on game day,” Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “So if you’re going to have a fullback that you’re only using 12 plays a game in your offense, he better play 18 shots on special teams. That’s critical.”
Fullbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, averaged 182.4 plays during the 2017 season. NFL offenses averaged 1,015.7 snaps last season, which means fullbacks played around 18 percent of snaps. San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk had 385 snaps, ran 152 routes and caught 33 passes. He was the only fullback to have more than 100 receiving yards. Buffalo’s Mike Tolbert rushed 66 times for 247 yards -- the only full-time fullback to have more than 100 rushing yards last season.
After special teams, the fullback role is tailored to specific offenses. Some teams will want a traditional plodder who is a high-level run-blocker and pass-protector. Receiving skills and versatility aren’t as important.
Most, though, want the fullback who can do it all, becoming a potential mismatch enigma for defenses, specifically linebackers and safeties covering them. Basically, that's Walker; he's listed as a tight end but plays a little bit of everywhere. That player can handle multiple roster spots, giving a team positional flexibility elsewhere. He causes consternation for defenses, too.
“We always talk about that old-school fullback that would just ... take someone head-on. That’s not the way it is anymore, right? Of course, for many reasons, it’s not,” Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “A lot of teams are looking for guys that have the physicality and the ability to get position, but also catch out of the backfield. They’re smart. But a lot of those guys are only playing 20 percent or less, so they are not on the field that often.
“So when they are on the field, they better be able to pass protect. They better be able to take the rock when they’re called upon, and they better be able to run routes. So I think the versatility of a fullback is very important.”
Hill showed up this offseason at Chip Smith Performance in Atlanta to train. Two seasons ago, he led Michigan with 13 touchdowns. He briefly considered early entry to the NFL draft, despite his position, but decided to return. He had a less productive 2017 season.
It wasn’t his fault. Michigan, star-laden in 2016, didn’t have the same options last season. At 6-foot-2 and 263 pounds, Hill knew he was a man with an atypical position, which made the start of his training with Smith’s team the reality of the fullback predicament.
“When I went down there, they all thought I was a running back,” Hill said. “They were like, ‘Bro, you’re a running back?' I was like, ‘Yeah.’ They were like, ‘Bro, you’re the biggest running back I’ve ever seen.’ I’m like, 'No, I played fullback and tight end.'”
This conversation went on for two days. One of Hill's trainers watched his YouTube highlights and told him he wasn’t a running back. He knew. But he also wanted to get the work in because he does a little bit of everything.
This is the common refrain for a lot of fullbacks: Give me a shot. I can be a little bit of everything for you. Hill, for instance, ran routes with receivers the past two months to sharpen his skills.
When Bawden lost the starting and backup quarterback jobs, Aztecs coaches offered him options. They’d help him transfer, or he could consider a position switch. Bawden had never played defense before and wanted to play linebacker. He was offered a chance to be a fullback instead, in part because of how well he knew the offense.
Unlike Hill and Bawden, Flowers knew what he was early on -- similar to Samuels.
“I did more than just the traditional fullback role, obviously,” Flowers said. “I ran the ball. … I’m tied for first in Oklahoma history in receiving touchdowns by a running back with DeMarco Murray in that aspect.
“I did a lot more things than a traditional fullback would be. Really, whatever was asked of me, I was going to do it.”
That’s the key. One of the common axioms of the NFL is the more you can do. Well, these guys know it’s their best -- and perhaps only -- way to a roster spot.
Every week or two, they’ll reach out to one another. Flowers and Bawden were at the Senior Bowl and combine together, two fullbacks among a group of players with more defined positions. Hill’s social-media inquiries led to relationships with both Flowers and Samuels.
Samuels and Hill talked about Samuels being referred to as a tight end at the combine. Flowers and Hill talk about a bit of everything, including the peculiarity of trying to be a fullback in a league in which not everyone wants one. Bawden, before his senior year at San Diego State, connected with a bunch of fullbacks past and present to try to figure out how to take care of his body better.
It has led to a bond, an understanding among all of them.
“At least on my end, I’m rooting for everybody,” Flowers said. “We’re cheering on everybody. It’s definitely, there’s not a lot of fullbacks, obviously, and at the end of the day, we’re going to get a shot somewhere, whether it be in camp or whether we get drafted and whatnot.”
Unlike their counterparts at other positions, not many people are clamoring to talk to them. Bawden, Hill and Flowers had meetings or workouts with teams, but the hectic pre-draft travel and workout schedules aren’t there.
If any of the three is drafted -- there’s a good chance that at least one will hear his name called draft weekend -- there’s a chance most people won’t know who he is. That’s part of the deal of being a fullback going through the draft process.
“It’s kind of different, you know,” Flowers said. “We’re not a glory position. You don’t see rankings coming out on us. You don’t see a whole bunch of spotlight articles, all that kind of other stuff.
“We’re just kind of laying low, laying under the radar, waiting until draft day.”