Patriots’ position: Fullbacks are not extinct just yet

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 31, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH ­— When he was in high school, Tony Fiammetta used to wear the super-huge neck roll for no other reason than because that’s what former Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott used to wear.

“Alstott was one of my favorite guys in high school,” Fiammetta said. “He had that big neck roll, so I had to be like him.”

There was a long list of the NFL’s most notorious road plows from Alstott to William Floyd to Daryl Johnston all the way back to John Riggins.

“Those were the guys I grew up trying to emulate,” Fiammetta said.

But with more teams moving to single-back formations, the fullback position has become more and more like a CD player — they still make them, but not a lot of people use them.

It’s easy to get nostalgic.

“Those guys were awesome,” said Spencer Larsen, who spent the last four seasons as a fullback for the Broncos and has seen the league evolve and his position put on the endangered-species list.

Even last season, sightings of a person playing fullback for the Patriots were scarce. Fiammetta and Larsen have been getting reps in the backfield in the early stages of training camp this year, and it will be interesting seeing how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels utilizes them.

“It’s an interesting group,” McDaniels said. “We’ll play any player that deserves to be on the field because they can help us win. The three fullbacks we have on the roster are working hard, they’ve done a good job in the spring, and I think the true test for us is to figure out how much we want to play with them in the game vs. the flexibility that other groups offer us.’’

But it’s always good to have more options, in terms of what you can play with based on your players and the flexibility that they give you.”

How much they’ll be used is still up in the air, but the group of fullbacks in camp are prepared to be a part of the offense.

“Whether it’s at fullback or anywhere else, I think you just try to bring value and try to find some worth to the team,” said Larsen. “Every team has their own ideology and their own philosophy. That’s kind of the way things have went for a while. We have a couple of them on this roster and we’re just excited to see if we can add to the team.”

The question of whether the fullback is going the way of the dinosaur is a valid one, although the Ravens have Vonta Leach, Ovie Mughelli is now with the Rams, and Green Bay employs John Kuhn.

“There’s some teams that definitely use it a lot more than others,’’ McDaniels said. “I think it depends on the style of offense that you want to use. We’ve always been kind of whatever the best way to play that week is, that’s what we try to do. If that means we play the fullback a lot, then that’s what we’ll try to do.”

In the past, McDaniels has made full use of the position. Heath Evans was a mainstay in the backfield during McDaniels’s first stint as offensive coordinator from 2006-08.

“I don’t think anybody knows yet,” Larsen said. “I think we’ll see as we go. We’ll see what kind of role we have. Just try to emphasize what I can do and how good I can do it, and see how they can use us.”

Larsen came into the league as a linebacker, but got his shot at fullback in 2008. As a rookie, in a 24-20 win over the Falcons, he became just the first person since 1990 to start on both sides of the ball in the same game.

He signed a two-year deal with the Patriots in March. Larsen was in Denver for McDaniels’s two years as head coach, the years McDaniels went away from two-back sets somewhat. Still, he was the lead blocker when running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for his first 100-yard game in 2010, doing things that would go unnoticed in the stat sheet but not by McDaniels.

“There’s just familiarity,” Larsen said. “It just helps a little bit, makes it more familiarity.”

For his career, Fiammetta’s only carried the ball 11 times.

“As the position evolved, it became more of a blocker,” Fiammetta said.

But he’s always been a factor, as he was last year in Dallas before he was sidelined in the middle of the season with a still-unknown illness.

“I’ve been lucky to get with several great coaching staffs since I’ve been in college [Syracuse] and in the NFL [Carolina before Dallas], and I’ve just tried to pick up whatever I could from those coaching staffs.”

Larsen was already used to playing two ways. Fiammetta’s embraced playing a role on the special-teams unit so far in camp. The fullback position might not be as prominent a part of the offense as it once was, but they’ll get by.

“It’s still a lot of fun to just be out here playing the game,” Fiammetta said. “I get to do a lot of things besides playing fullback. I grew up playing the game, grew up wanting to play in the NFL, so as long I’m out here having fun, it’s a good thing.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.

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