Virginia's Rashawn Jackson adapts to evolving roles of fullbacks

Only two fullbacks were drafted in 2009, but Rashawn Jackson could go this year.
Only two fullbacks were drafted in 2009, but Rashawn Jackson could go this year. (Sam Greenwood/getty Images)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Rashawn Jackson is one of the top fullbacks in this week's NFL draft, a distinction without much prestige. As NFL offenses have become pass oriented, the fullback position has evolved, with its traditional form nearing extinction.

"It's a dying breed," said Washington Redskins fullback Mike Sellers, who has played 10 seasons. "More of the fullbacks need to be able to catch passes, go out and run routes. You don't have too many of those right now. It's just specific to what a coach wants."

Only two natural fullbacks were selected in last season's draft, the fewest since 2001. Sellers said a fullback must be a "hybrid" to succeed in today's game, able to both block for others and makes plays on his own. It's a role that Jackson, a former Virginia fullback, has embraced as he prepares for an NFL career.

"My whole goal is to get in the league and have people re-think their perspective of what a fullback is," said Jackson, who led Virginia with 461 rushing yards last season. "Things change. Toyotas don't look the same way they looked in 1992. So I figured, hey, why can't fullbacks change and do the same? So me and other fullbacks out there can reconstruct the position."

Jackson points to Philadelphia Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver as an example of the way the position is changing. Weaver earned a spot in the Pro Bowl last season after rushing for 323 yards and catching 15 passes for 140 yards, and signed a contract during the offseason that made him the highest-paid fullback in NFL history. Jackson also admires Atlanta Falcons fullback Jason Snelling, a U-Va. product who rushed for 613 yards and caught 30 passes in a hybrid role last season.

"Guys have to be that hybrid player who can lead block, block on the edge, protect the quarterback," Snelling said. "And you also have to be able to take carries, be productive on short yardage and run the ball and catch the ball out of the backfield. Fullback needs to do a lot more this time in the league."

Snelling has a close relationship with Jackson and experienced a similar college career. Like Jackson, Snelling shuffled between fullback and tailback -- Jackson even spent a season as a linebacker -- and was forced to learn how to play different roles.

"Teams look for guys who do more, because it saves roster spots," Snelling said. "They want guys who can play fullback and come in and play tailback."

Snelling also emphasized special teams as vital for fullbacks, and Jackson pointed out that he played in all special teams with the Cavaliers. But Redskins running backs coach Bobby Turner, who has coached the position for 15 years in the NFL, said he still requires a fullback who can block.

Snelling said blocking is about technique more than a size, but a fullback in the current state of the NFL needs quickness and athleticism, which Jackson possesses even at 6 feet 1 and 239 pounds. When former Virginia coach Al Groh recruited Jackson, Groh watched Jackson play basketball and witnessed what Jackson could do at his size.

"He did a little 360 and went up and dunked it, and that's pretty good for a player that size," Groh said during the season. "It's not as if he's 6-4. That gives you a good idea that he's got really good overall athletic skill."

Jackson said he injured his hamstring while running the 40-yard dash at February's scouting combine, which hurt his results. He ran in 4.73 seconds, but is confident there's enough game film from the past few seasons to reveal what he can do on the field to survive as a fullback in a pass-oriented league.

"They still need someone to pick up the blitz," Jackson said. "Not too many tailbacks are 240 pounds. I've been given opportunities to showcase that this season, playing H-back and picking up the blitzes, and I think that was beneficial in evaluating my film and seeing they have a complete-package player."

Jackson is not going to watch the draft, instead planning to barbecue with his family. The range in which he could be drafted is so vast that he said he would become too nervous.

Jackson is less concerned with the round he gets picked and more concerned with how he fits on his future NFL team. Snelling was a seventh-round pick. Weaver went undrafted. Sellers came from the Canadian Football League. Jackson is prepared to quickly learn the value of a position that continues to evolve.

"I don't think it's devalued," Snelling said, "but the position is transforming and you got to do more than just the typical fullback, the lead blocker, and what it's typically known as."

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