OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The evolution of the Baltimore Ravens’ power-running game hasn’t made the old-school fullback obsolete, but it has altered the traditional model. Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel’s game plan for a more versatile, less predictable attack has created a fullback by committee approach that includes a multi-purpose H-back role tailor-made for tight end Daniel Wilcox.
Wilcox is a former wide receiver at Appalachian State who’s capable of lining up everywhere from slot receiver, in-line tight end and blocking fullback in a three-point stance as well as the H-back spot. At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, he blends speed, hands and solid blocking.
“It’s confusing to defenses, which is why we do it,” said Wilcox, who has caught 45 passes over the past two seasons and was rewarded in February with a three-year contract that averages $900,000 per season. “When I come into games, I can slide out to wide receiver or line up at tight end, fullback or H-back.
“When you put a fullback in the game, they pretty much know what your set is going to be. I can be in the backfield and we can pretty much run the same plays we run with the fullback.”
Popularized by Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs during his first tenure with the Washington Redskins, the H-back is a hybrid position that combines the traits of several skill players. "An H-back has to have good hands and be super smart,” Gibbs said in an interview last year. “They give you a lot of opportunities for changes in formations. If you notice, real good football teams do it because it’s a different complication for the defense.”
While the offense is transitioning to include less of the I-formation and more one-back alignments and three wide receiver sets, the Ravens are still trying to settle on who will be the primary fullback for featured running back Jamal Lewis.
Justin Green is listed atop the depth chart at fullback, but has shared first-team repetitions with veteran Ovie Mughelli, who doubles as a special-teams ace.
Through two preseason games, both have blocked adeptly and Baltimore has rushed for 275 yards on 58 carries, an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
Reserve running back Musa Smith leads the NFL in rushing with 116 yards, averaging 14.5 per carry.
"We’ve got to get some faith in those guys and what they’re doing," coach Brian Billick said. "We’re using the H-backs and tight ends a little bit more in that capacity.
“So there’s a full crowd, which is good, but what you’re alluding to is very real. Our backs have to get into a comfort zone and a trust of the big fullbacks in front of them."
In large part because of Green and Mughelli’s potential, the Ravens felt comfortable enough to release bruising, oft-injured fullback Alan Ricard, who cleared pathways for Lewis to rush for 2,066 yards three seasons ago for the second-most in NFL history. It’s a major shift in philosophy from the “three yards and a cloud of dust” style favored by former offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. However, it has required an adjustment for Lewis, who will recuperate for the next two weeks from a nagging strained left hip flexor, in how he reads his blocking and the defense.
“It feels different, but it’s what we’re trying to do with the offense with the H-back and moving him around and motioning him out,” Lewis said. “It feels awkward or whatever, but we have to do it because that’s what they want to do. I’m just trying to hit the line of scrimmage and trust that the hole will be there.”
Mughelli and Green are practically polar opposites.
Mughelli is a 6-foot-1, 255-pound battering ram from Wake Forest who relishes contact whereas Green, who appears smaller than his 5-foot-11, 251-pound listing on the roster, is a converted college tailback.
The former Montana standout is considered to be a much niftier runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield than Mughelli. “We are very different because Ovie is very powerful and I have a background at tailback and can do some athletic things,” Green said. “It’s very close and neither of us can afford to relax. The competition has brought out the best in both of us.”
Green started four games last season. He caught seven passes for 32 yards, rushed five times for four yards and converted a two-point conversion. Mughelli started five games last season and caught three passes for 13 yards while finishing fourth on the team with 16 special-teams tackles.
“We’re both good fullbacks and I’m real excited about the season and having two people that can play the position,” Mughelli said. “They might not be able to keep the fullback off the field with what we bring to the table. Jamal is headed for a big year running behind me and Justin and the tight ends.”
Two locker stalls down from Wilcox, Mughelli is listening while Wilcox fondly discusses his mulit-faceted H-back role. Then, Mughelli makes a joke about a
conspiracy against the fullbacks.
“This is just the beginning,” Wilcox quipped. “They even have special plays for Ovie Mughelli. I don’t think Ovie is going to be able to pick up on it too good, especially the triple-reverse they put in for him.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.