Tommy Tremble: Notre Dame’s Chip Off The Ol’ Fullback Block
Once upon a time for about a 50-year period, the fullback was a prime identity of the Notre Dame attack on offense: Tough, physical, blue-collar, no frills.
• Hall of Fame inductee Emil “Six Yard” Sitko switched to fullback for the 1949 national champions — and also used on occasion there that year was Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart.
• Fullback Neil Worden, not Heisman winner Johnny Lattner, led the unbeaten 1953 team in rushing, and first-round pick Nick Pietrosante (1956-58) has a prestigious award at Notre Dame named after him that epitomizes courage, leadership and talent.
• Larry Conjar was a second-round pick for the 1966 national champs, while Wayne “The Train” Bullock and Jerome Heavens, who broke George Gipp’s 58-year rushing record at Notre Dame, were the leading ground gainers for the 1973 and 1977 national champions.
• During the Lou Holtz era, the NFL assembly line at the position included second-round picks Anthony Johnson (1986-89), Ray Zellars (1991-94) and Marc Edwards (1993-96), and of course, first-round selection Jerome “The Bus” Bettis (1990-92).
Meanwhile, former tailback Rodney Culver moved to fullback in 1990 to lead the team in rushing that year and to serve as the lone captain in 1991.
Since the turn into the 21st century, the fullback has gradually been phased out of most of football, giving way to spread concepts that often will include four- and five receiver sets.
The last time Notre Dame officially listed a starting fullback in its lineup was 2009, when former five-star tailback James Aldridge was shifted there as a senior, and backed up by 248-pound walk-on Bobby Burger.
Injuries limited Aldridge to six games that year, with six carries for 17 yards. Robert Hughes also was positioned there when Aldridge was injured.
Then came 2010 and the arrival of Brian Kelly, and basically the elimination of the fullback in the football lexicon. The position was going the way of the single-wing offense, although still integral in triple-option attacks. On occasion, though, a tight end would line up as the “H back,” either set or in motion.
And now, junior tight end Tommy Tremble might be bringing back the fullback, or at least partially. Fullback will never be against what it once was, but “Throwback Tommy” and his powerful 6-4, 248-pound frame brought back reminders of a past era during the 52-0 win over South Florida.
Seldom does a blocking back get as much attention during a game or telecast as Tremble did with his isolation or edge blocking versus the Bulls. And he even was thrown a bone as a runner when he bulled between the tackles for a four-yard gain on a third-and-one situation in the second quarter — carrying multiple defenders with him while refusing to fall on the ground.
Two- and three-tight end sets have hardly been novel to Notre Dame’s offense in recent years, but under first-year coordinator Tommy Rees, Tremble’s role took on tight end/fullback hybrid.
“It felt pretty good,” said a beaming Tremble after the game. “We worked it throughout the offseason and throughout the season as well. I love being at fullback too, so it’s not a problem for me.”
While catching 16 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns last year as the understudy to second-round draft pick Cole Kmet, Tremble displayed an aptitude and appetite as a blocker too. Pro Football Focus graded him out with a strong 82.8 score as a run blocker despite getting stereotyped with his frame as more receiver than tight end.
“Last year I played like at 225 the entire season, and I was trying my best just to block anything,” Tremble noted. “This year I got all the way up to 252 right before camp… we all just got better.
“… Honestly, I just love contact, I love playing the game of football. It’s just pure passion for me. Every time I’m on the field I just want to be dominant, and I try my best to.”
Practices during the season are more about “thud” work, but game days are when Tremble’s aggressiveness get released.
“In practice I’m not trying to kill our guys, and they’re not trying to kill me either,” he said. “We want to protect each other then. From time to time we like to get a little physical, but it’s all pretty good … I always can’t wait until game day so I can finally do it.”
It’s not often that a tight end who also caught three passes for 61 yards to lead the team in that category gets overshadowed by his blocking, but Tremble did last weekend, and that is the plan moving forward as well. He insists that a good block to spring a runner is just as gratifying as hauling in a pass, if not more so.
“I promise you, it feels just as good. I love doing it,” he said.
Although not truly and officially a classic fullback, Tremble meshes ideally with the toughness that Kelly, Rees and Co., want to incorporate into the 2020 offense, and having a fullback-like and highly versatile figure in Tremble is a vital component in that goal.
“The tight ends were integral as you can see by our formation sets,” Kelly said. “We are in 12- (two tight ends) and 13-personnel (three tight ends) groupings. We are starting to get our aiming points down pretty good on the outside zone and our inside punch play, and then once teams start over-committing to that, then you can see how clean the counters look and the misdirection plays.”
Call it the ol’ chip off the ol’ fullback block — with more than just "chip blocks" from Tremble.
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