On most days during football season, Max Kavaljian is affectionately known as “A-Train” and “Rhino” among his Fairfax coaches and teammates. Both monikers reference the 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior’s physique and style of play and serve as reminders of his rare place among a disappearing breed of players: the traditional fullback.
Between the evolution of offenses and the nature of the position, fewer high school athletes are playing fullback than ever. Following the trends in college and professional football, high school coaches increasingly are implementing spread and read-option offensive schemes, which do not generally call for a fullback. For players with dreams of playing at the next level, specializing at fullback can seem as practical as learning ancient Greek. And the position’s emphasis on grit over glamour makes it unappealing for many athletes in the first place.
In an informal poll conducted by The Post, just seven high school teams ranked in The Post’s Top 20 said they employ a blocking fullback in their base offense. At the NFL level, there are only 24 fullbacks listed across the 32 active rosters, and since 2007, no high school players listed as fullbacks have cracked the ESPN 150 recruit rankings. In 2006, two fullbacks made the list, and this year, a fullback was ranked No. 289 on the list, which was expanded to 300 in 2010.
“Fullback is an [undervalued] position that can add toughness and protection, but teams have been moving away from it,” said Virginia running backs coach Larry Lewis, whose team has four fullbacks listed on its roster. “Teams are more likely to recruit another linebacker or tight end and then convert him to fullback. At the end of the day, schools make decisions based on what fits their offense and what they need.”
In the summer of 2012, Kavaljian was in prime position to become Fairfax’s next featured running back. But when explosive rusher Nick Scott transferred to the school from Massachusetts, the rising junior knew he needed to find a different niche to remain an integral part of the Rebels’ offense.
“I like to run and get the ball, but I also love blocking and hitting people,” said Kavaljian, who has rushed for 210 yards on 37 carries and also starts at linebacker for the Rebels. “Nowadays you don’t see many fullbacks because everything’s about speed. But I’m all about helping the team, and when I can hit a guy so that Nick can run for a touchdown, that’s a great feeling.”
As college coaches descended upon Fairfax to scout Scott (now a Penn State commit), some noticed Kavaljian and the role he played in Scott rushing for 982 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 80 carries. But as Kavaljian chatted with them and other coaches at smaller schools like Randolph-Macon and William and Mary, most envisioned him as a middle linebacker because of his height.
“We aren’t promoting Max as a running back, fullback or linebacker. We’re promoting him as an athlete because you never know what a college wants or needs, and he can do it all,” said Fairfax Coach Kevin Simonds, who estimates Kavaljian serves as a blocker 90 percent of the time within the Rebels’ offense. “If you don’t have someone that can get in there and block, I’m not going to just throw a kid in there just to do it. Fortunately, we have Max.”
Arundel Coach Chuck Markiewicz remembers being called a communist in the early 1990s when he chose a run-and-shoot offense instead of the once-typical, pro-style fullback look. But as college coaches such as Urban Meyer began to implement a modernized version of the spread in the late ’90s and Markiewicz brought his offensive scheme to Arundel in 2000, he began to notice more local teams following suit.
“When you line up four players wide, it’s easier to see what the defense is doing,” said Markiewicz, whose 6-1 team averages more than 40 points per game. “With a fullback or tight end in the backfield, it’s easier for the defense to disguise coverages and fronts, so for us as coaches, the spread is a lot easier to run and be proficient.”
Personnel is another factor for high school coaches debating the merits of using a fullback. After initially working a fullback into his offense, Lake Braddock Coach Jim Poythress abandoned the plan in 2008 when he realized the stocky player with strong blocking and rushing skills didn’t always roam his school’s hallways.
Briar Woods Coach Charlie Pierce said he “yearns” to be able to use a fullback in his offense. But with dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley and plenty of playmaking athletes, Pierce knew the Falcons were better served spreading out the field rather than welcoming another defender into the box with a fullback’s presence.
Still, both coaches are quick to note that while the traditional fullback is disappearing, the position is far from extinct. Spots are reserved each season for a fullback on the NFL’s all-pro and Pro Bowl teams. And college teams like Stanford and Virginia Tech still find success behind a smashmouth approach on offense.
At the local high school level, Potomac School’s Jalen Broome credits most of his area-best 1,553 rushing yard total to the presence of lead blocker Andrew Lent. Like Kavaljian, Lent had served as the Panthers’ featured rusher, but when a hamstring injury sidelined him last season, Broome emerged as the starter.
“Once we all saw how good Jalen was, I realized it’d be a lot better if I was blocking,” said Lent, who has rushed 17 times for 171 yards this year. “As running back, I didn’t really have any moves, so if I saw someone in front of me, I would just sort of hit them. And that’s pretty much what I do now at fullback.”
Woodgrove Coach Mike Skinner stands as one of the few local coaches to run the I-formation offense, in which a fullback regularly lines up directly in front of the running back. The scheme is a deviation from the spread and single-wing offenses that Skinner ran in 20-plus years of coaching at Centreville, Marshall and Stone Bridge but a perfect fit for the backfield tandem of fullback Isaiah Haynes and senior Josh Sweet, who has rushed for 1,116 yards and 20 touchdowns this fall.
“It can make things harder in back-and-forth games, but running the power I is what we do well,” Skinner said. “It actually can be difficult to run the ball in the spread, whereas we can run play-action and run down the clock in the I-form.”
Despite switching from the more run-friendly wing-T offense to the spread to maximize Scott’s versatility, Fairfax has found success on the ground. Behind Kavaljian, whose “A-Train” moniker comes from bruising former NFL fullback Mike Alstott, the Rebels have rushed for 1,783 yards during their 5-2 start.
Simonds said it’s too early to tell whether the Rebels’ fullback system will vanish next year with the graduation of Kavaljian and Scott. For now, he and his players are focused on maximizing the unique skills of a player who has Fairfax on track for its fifth straight playoff appearance.
“I love running behind Max because he just puts his head down and lays out people,” Scott said. “Football isn’t so much a power and traditional style anymore, but I guess we’ve got one of the few good fullbacks left in Max, and I’m grateful for that.”