Fullbacks are disappearing on the college football landscape as the game gets more modern, more flashy, more aerial.
Three yards and a cloud of dust? Power football has gone the way of the hand saw.
But not for Kansan Miles Thomas, a throwback football player from Downs, in north-central Kansas, where he played at Lakeside High.
Thomas is a fullback in the truest sense of the word. He’s built low to the ground – 6-foot, 253 pounds – and he’s usually on the field to do one thing… block.
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There’s not much glitz for Thomas, who didn’t rush once for the Gophers in 2014 but did catch six passes.
“I think there will be more opportunities for me this season,” Thomas said. “More plays and different plays to get the ball in my hands.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, a Cheney native, has always been a run-first coach. There’s nothing he loves more than a stout fullback able to assist offensive linemen in opening up holes.
Last season, Gophers running back David Cobb found enough of those holes to rush for 1,626 yards. He’s now in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns, though, as does Thomas. And Kill expects the holes to be there.
“Miles does a great job,” Kill said. “He’s a very good athlete and a hard-working kid. Hard-nosed and tough.”
Thomas was a fullback in high school, too, albeit one that was the primary rusher for Downs. He rushed for 1,760 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior and earned a scholarship to Butler Community College.
It was there that the carries diminished and the blocking was emphasized.
When the top college coaches from around the country go on the recruiting trail, they don’t often look for fullbacks. And it was no different for Thomas.
For the longest time, the best offer he had out of Butler was from Eastern Kentucky, a Championship Subdivision school. Its coaches wanted Thomas to walk on for a semester and promised then they would give him a scholarship.
No way, Thomas said.
Eventually, he started hearing from Minnesota’s coaches, including Kill. He had to walk on, but eventually he was given a scholarship. And just like that, Thomas was playing in the Big Ten.
“One thing about Butler is that they’ve always produced good fullbacks,” Thomas said. “The starter at Minnesota had graduated, the second-string guy took a job offer and the third-string guy was hurt. I was kind of an emergency fill-in.”
One that has worked out well.
“All the spread offenses you see in college football, the fullback isn’t utilized as much,” Kill said. “But Miles does a lot for us. He’s a good-enough athlete that he can get out and catch the ball and we can move him around some in our offense. He’s a unique player to have.”
Kill commented on Thomas’ good speed and “great hands.” And he re-iterated that the Minnesota offense will include a few more wrinkles for the fullback this season.
“We can put Miles out on a wing or at an inside slot and he can play in some of those places because he’s smart and he’s versatile,” Kill said.
Minnesota ranked 28th in the country in rushing yardage last season and pushed Wisconsin for the Big Ten West championship before losing to the Badgers on the final day of the regular season. The Gophers, who lost to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl 33-17, were 8-5 and dropped four of their last six games.
Minnesota has a tough opener against TCU, but it will be at home. It’ll be interesting to see what Kill does with the offense minus Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ second-round pick in the NFL Draft.
“We’re a team, with Coach Kill, that wants to run the football,” Thomas said. “We try to take it out of our opponents by running it down their throats and getting them to lay over.”
Thomas is in the midst of the havoc. He’s in there where the sausage is made and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
“At Minnesota, we still run the traditional I-Back offense and all of that,” Thomas said. “Not a lot of teams still do that, but most teams still have at least one fullback on their depth chart whether that fullback is in there once in a while or quite a bit.”
Thomas is on all but one of Minnesota’s special teams, too. So he’s definitely putting in a full day’s work.
“How much I’m used at fullback here really depends on who we’re playing,” Thomas said. “But I’m probably in their 40 percent of the time.”
And loving every second.
“For me,” Thomas said, “playing at Minnesota is a dream come true.”