The terms "fullback" and "high profile" are not ones typically found in the same sentence. The fullback position is one marked by hitting, blocking assignments and more hitting, tasks not always recognized by casual fans.
Kentucky, as it seems, is a bit of anomaly when it comes to anonymity at the fullback position. In fact, for the second consecutive season, UK will line up a fan favorite at fullback, complete with nickname and all.
Last season, John "The Terminator" Conner was well known among UK fans for his crushing blocks and crucial role in Kentucky's rushing offense, which ranked among the nation's best. Conner was recognized as a 2009 All-American by Pro Football Weekly and went on to be selected by the New York Jets in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, an above-slot selection for most fullbacks. At the next level, Conner is already showing why he was held in such high regard in Lexington, as his new team has been featured on HBO's hit series "Hard Knocks." There, Conner has drawn frequent praise from Jets' exuberant head coach Rex Ryan.
This season, Moncell "Turtle" Allen steps into the role vacated by Conner as a former tailback who has earned his way into the hearts of fans thanks to his punishing runs and diminutive stature (in height only). Allen has the fan favorite identity, the nickname, and some experience at the fullback position, but the task of filling in for Conner remains an extremely tall one.
With Conner in the NFL, Allen was the coaching staff's clear choice as a successor, having already shown he could capably play fullback in limited duty at the position. For the first time in his UK career, Allen had a permanent position tag.
Allen has spent time at both fullback and tailback, and his full-time switch to fullback has allowed him to progress significantly.
"Putting the title on him permanently makes him feel more confident in what his role is and what he's supposed to do," running backs head coach Larry Brinson said.
Allen recognizes that the full-time transition is still a work in progress, but he is intent on filling Conner's shoes.
"Sometimes I find myself thinking like a tailback coming out of the huddle," Allen said. "I'm working on thinking like a fullback all the time."
The transition also has not come without headaches, literally.
"Every now and then you get a headache," Allen said. "It's not always a fun job, but it's a job I have to do to make my team better."
However, Allen and Brinson are both excited about the tailback skills that he brings to the fullback position. Allen's versatility adds a dimension to the offense that could pose problems for opposing defenses. In this three seasons at UK, the 5-foot-7, 232-pound fullback has rushed the ball 96 times for 469 yards and one touchdown, including 47 carries last year for 228 yards.
"Instead of having to bring in another tailback, we can leave him in sometimes and run some tailback plays," Brinson said. "We can move (Derrick) Locke out to a wide-out position and still be able to run the ball inside."
Allen also anticipates that the role could expand even further with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make opponents miss. During his time at UK, Conner progressed as a ball carrier and receiver, and his touches increased accordingly. After carrying the ball just 23 times his first three seasons, Conner rushed the ball 31 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns last season.
With a proven playmaker like Allen at fullback, expect UK's offensive scheme to further evolve in order to put the ball in the fullback's hands often.
Allen's primary offensive role will be that of a traditional fullback: putting his teammates in a position to make plays with his blocking, a responsibility that he believes he can perform up to par with Conner. However, his versatility is what will allow him to put his own stamp on the fullback position.
"I can hit just like (Conner), but I can other stuff out of the backfield as well," Allen said. "With me, people will say 'I have to deal with this guy (as a blocker), but at the same time, I have to cover him.' "