By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
10:02 PM EST, November 16, 2013
You look at Vonta Leach and it's hard to avoid this conclusion: He was put on Earth to knock people over.
Even shorn of his pads, the Ravens fullback resembles a human battering ram — stout from his black cleats up to his boulder of a head.
Of course he became a fullback. The universe designed him to obliterate, not evade. And Leach has the outlook to match, equal parts fearless and selfless.
"You just can't give a damn," he said with a hearty laugh when asked to explain the fullback mentality. "You just can't care. You know your body's going to feel like crap all next week. But you know you're that tone-setter with the way you hit. I always embraced the role."
Yet here's the conundrum of Leach's current existence — he has mastered a job that's no longer in high demand. You couldn't find a finer specimen of fullback, but the position, at least as Leach plays it, is nearly extinct in the pass-crazy NFL.
Want to know what it was like to be the last Triceratops after the meteor hit? Leach is the man to ask.
"It's sad," said former Raven Sam Gash, who hails from the same line of block-first fullbacks. "Vonta's a bull in a ballet, and he might very well be one of the last."
The Ravens have shown a greater commitment to fullback than most NFL franchises. Before they signed Leach in 2011, they had Gash, Lorenzo Neal and Ovie Mughelli, all considered elite blocking backs. They were one of just three teams to pick a fullback — Leach's understudy, Kyle Juszczyk — in this year's draft.
Even so, Leach has watched his playing time dwindle in 2013. The Ravens have used more sets featuring at least three wide receivers. And in trying to jumpstart a weak running game, their coaches have turned not to Leach but to the spread-out pistol formation.
Leach has averaged just 18.6 snaps a game this season, according to statistics kept by Pro Football Focus. That's down from 29 a game in 2012 and 37 a game in 2011. Leach bottomed out when he got in for two snaps in the Ravens' Nov. 3 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh says Leach's performance isn't the primary reason.
"It's probably more about an evolving offensive scheme," Harbaugh said. "We do want Vonta in the mix, but where do you lean most heavily? Our formations have been more one back-type formations the last few weeks."
Ray Rice, who calls Leach the best lead blocker he's run behind, echoed Harbaugh's thoughts. "It's not because of Vonta," Rice said of the fullback's reduced role. "It's what the defenses are giving us. It's nothing he did. When Vonta gets in there, he's going to whack people."
Leach's reduced playing time was foreshadowed by the Ravens' offseason decisions to cut him and later bring him back at a significantly reduced salary.
But he isn't easily daunted. This is a starting backfield player who once endured a stretch of more than two seasons worth of games without carrying the ball. Between catches and handoffs, he has never touched the pigskin more than 30 times in a single year.
Leach doesn't see fullback as an obsolete position, more one that's merging with tight end. He believes his successors will have to catch more passes and be comfortable lining up in multiple spots. And he says it's on him to hold his job by making himself as versatile as possible.
"It is rough," he said of playing infrequently. "But at the same time, you always got to stay ready. There's going to be a time, a point, where you have to play 30-40 snaps, and you have to be ready."
The Fullback Club
Few admire Leach more than the other men who have walked in his unglamorous shoes. Fellow fullbacks see the way he spies a hole as adroitly as a tailback, the way he throws his 260-pound body into a linebacker with absolute conviction.
"There's a few that are just pure," said Daryl Johnston, a former Pro Bowl fullback with the Dallas Cowboys and current analyst for Fox. "It's a violent position. The job of the running back is to avoid contact but the job of a fullback is to initiate it. More than anything, it's a mentality."
Gash said that if he heard a fullback complaining about not touching the ball, he'd smack the guy in the mouth. It wasn't clear if the two-time Pro Bowler was kidding.
"Finesse guys, I don't get down with that," he said. "Once you get labeled a fullback, there's a mindset that goes with that. I absolutely feel a kinship with the other guys. You know the struggle to stay on a team, the concussions you can't talk about because you might get Wally Pipped."
Fullback wasn't always a spot for unselfish grunts. Marion Motley, Jim Brown and John Riggins were among the dominant rushers of their respective eras. But by the 1990s, Johnston led a wave of fullbacks who were primarily lead blockers but also caught passes out of the backfield. Johnston was respected enough that the NFL added a designated fullback spot to its Pro Bowl rosters.
There are a few players other than Leach keeping the position alive — Anthony Sherman in Kansas City, Bruce Miller in San Francisco. But NFL teams don't even average one fullback per roster any longer.
Juszczyk, who played tight end at Harvard, has enjoyed his crash course in lead blocking from Leach. "I watch him every day," the rookie said. "He's always the lowest man on all his blocks. He's always finishing up the play. He's a very physical guy."
But when Juszczyk thinks ahead to his future at the position, he envisions himself as a jack of all trades. The Ravens drafted him in part because he has potential to be a greater offensive threat.
"I think a fullback's got to be a lot of things," he said. "You've got to be a good run blocker. You've got to be smart in protection. And you've still got to catch the ball out of the backfield."
The fullback's traditional job is to clear out a linebacker, but coaches figure that with a third or fourth receiver in the game instead, the same linebacker will be pulled for a defensive back. That equates to more options in the passing game and more open space for a single running back.
Or so the theory goes. Some analysts, such as Johnston, say high-octane passing teams often struggle to run on short-yardage downs, a potentially fatal flaw in the playoffs.
"Will you always need a guy like Leach?" he said. "Someone who can line up and get after it in those situations? I'm hoping it circles all the way back to that."
Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, the man responsible for pulling Leach on those three-receiver sets, is another who says the blocking fullback will retain a place in the NFL.
"I don't think it will become obsolete because this game is still based on control of the line of scrimmage and toughness," Caldwell said. "And you'll find some guys that can still buckle up and get after it at that position."
Like many who perform the unsung, punishing roles in sports, Leach is a sweetheart. Every holiday season, he showers gifts and food on the children of his hometown, Lumberton. N.C. His gifts of money and equipment have helped keep the struggling football program afloat at his alma mater, South Robeson High.
Teammates love him. When he played in Houston, they donned "Leach to the Beach" T-shirts as part of a campaign to get him in the Pro Bowl. In Baltimore, he's often flanked by a posse of grinning Ravens as he walks off the practice field.
A smile spreads across Leach's wide face as he warms to describing the brutal craft of his position. He never harbored any illusions about what kind of player he'd become. Even in high school, when he rushed for nearly 1,700 yards as a senior, he preferred to run over opponents rather than run away from them.
"That's the only way," he said.
His unselfishness became apparent at East Carolina, where he switched to the unglamorous fullback role after two seasons at linebacker. His senior year, the team's tailback got hurt in the fourth quarter of a game against South Florida. Leach took his spot and gained 103 yards the rest of the way. The next week, he went right back to clearing tacklers for the other guy.
He began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers, where his running backs coach, Edgar Bennett, told him he'd have two avenues to a long professional tenure: special teams or fullback.
"My first year in the league, I knew," Leach recalled. "I'm a fullback."
He learned from a ready-made role model, William Henderson, who manned the position for the Packers, and from watching veterans such as Neal and Tony Richardson.
He realized the position was no path to the limelight, though in Baltimore, he found a team that would pay him $3 million a year and a fanbase that loved his hardscrabble game. Leach has always sated himself with the appreciation of teammates and opponents.
"There's no better satisfaction than when your peers, the guys you go up against week in and week out, come and tell you, 'You're a hell of a player,' " he said. "You can get all the accolades ever, but there's nothing better than when a running backs coach comes to you and says, 'Hey, I put on your film and tell my guys to model themselves after you.'"
But if he's not on the field, will that too go away?
Rice, the guy who benefits most directly from Leach's work, says it's too early to put a period on the fullback's story. He envisions a game on some cold Sunday in December, when the Ravens will need to control a game four-yard bite by four-yard bite.
"Trust me, when it gets late in the year, and it's time to run people over, everybody needs that kind of fullback," Rice said. "He's that guy. He's ready for it, doing what a pro does by keeping his body ready. When his number's called, he's there for us."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun