At fullback, FAU's Willie Rose a Sun Belt rarity

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BOCA RATON The list is short when NFL scouts start looking for fullbacks.

The popularity of the spread offense has made the position almost obsolete with about 10 percent of the 120 teams in Division 1-A even listing a fullback on their depth charts.

All of which makes Florida Atlantic's Willie Rose a dying breed.

"You can't find guys like Willie Rose anymore," quarterback Rusty Smith said, "especially not in college football."

But you will always find players like Rose in Howard Schnellenberger's offense. That's because Schnellenberger is as old school as they come - three-a-days, sports coat and tie on game day, two-back offense with a fullback. And that will not change.

And Rose, a fifth-year senior, sees what's happened to his position, one that is so overlooked that the Sun Belt Conference, among most others, doesn't even list a fullback on their all-conference teams.

But not at FAU, which is why Rose says, "I made the absolute right decision coming here," when asked about the lost art of playing fullback.

"I'm just happy to be used that way," he said. "I love it. This is what I had in mind coming out of high school. This is what I wanted to do."

Schnellenberger likens the role of his fullback to that of a decathlete.

"Not necessarily somebody who could win a 100-meter, could win a mile run, could win the javelin or the high jump," he reasoned. "But add them all together and he's what we consider the best athlete."

Rose is 6-foot-1, 227 pounds. In 33 career games he has averaged 5.1 yards on 134 carries (678 yards) and caught 62 passes for 437 yards and nine scores.

But that tells part of the story. Rose is as effective sitting in the backfield and taking on a blitz as he is opening a hole for a running back through the line of scrimmage or blocking downfield.

Last season, running back Charles Pierre set the Owls single season rushing record and two years ago Smith set the school's single season passing record. The only blocker to start every one of those games was Rose.

"He'll fight you to the death when it comes to protecting the quarterback," Smith said. "He sacrifices his body for the running backs. He makes the key blocks that spring long runs. He's always the one hustling downfield to make the extra block."

And yet with a stable full of receivers and tight ends, opponents would be remiss to sleep on Rose when it comes to identifying the Owls' offensive threats.

Rose's touchdown-to-reception ratio of 1 for every 6.9 catches is tops on the team. He's had four games with at least 50 rushing yards and four with at least five receptions.

"He's a throwback in a sense of the toughness of the position and from the sense that he's no-nonsense," running backs coach Dave Serna said. "But he's not just a bruiser who can block people. He can catch the ball and run the ball. He can make people miss and be a threat with the ball."

And now Rose even looks the part.

For the last two years Owls fans only have seen Rose with long locks sticking out of the back of his helmet. But following last season Rose did something he not done for 2 1/2 years. ... get a haircut.

Rose now sports a buzz cut.

"I was just ready for it to be gone," he said. "It fits better. It feels better."

And it fits the player. ... and the position.