Can a fullback be the face of a modern college football team’s offense?
That may be the question surrounding the Michigan football team this year.
The Wolverines lost the bulk of last season’s playmakers to graduation. They did, however, receive some good news when Khalid Hill, their resident touchdown vulture also known as the ‘Hammering Panda,’ decided to return for one final year.
Hill admitted it would be nice to be considered the face of the offense. Since Jim Harbaugh’s arrival, the fullback has been integral to Michigan’s scheme. But Hill reserved that term for Wilton Speight, the team’s returning starting quarterback.
He may be underselling himself. Hill scored 13 times last season, by far the most of any returning skill position player and more than a third of the team’s total rushing and receiving touchdowns from returning players.
So that mantle — of being the focal point of the offense — may have to be shared between Hill and Speight, regardless of whether Hill denies it while saying he’s “just” a fullback.
Because if you believe what he has said about his offseason, it certainly seems like the fifth-year senior is gearing up for what may be a larger role, even after his breakout season last year.
After all, he feels like he could be even better at what may be Harbaugh’s most beloved position.
“I feel more comfortable with the fullback position,” Hill said Tuesday night. “… Last year was like, ‘Do the best you can.’ This year I’m kinda focusing on those small things and getting better at those.”
That attention to the small things is a lesson he learned from his first season as a starter, after switching positions from tight end to fullback.
It’s also a lesson he saw in action while observing the NFL coaches and scouts in attendance at Michigan’s Pro Day.
In past years, Hill only watched the 40-yard dashes. But this year, he stayed for the rest of the drills, and quickly noticed the NFL personnel were looking for the details from each drill — how a player flipped his hips, or whether he could catch a ball without slowing down.
That new approach has found its way into his own game, from the little things like losing weight (still a work in progress, he readily admitted) to having a better understanding of opposing defenses.
“At tight end, you didn’t really have to understand what defensive fronts there are, safety rotations, reading defensive linemen stunts, you didn’t have to worry about that,” Hill said. “Coach Harbaugh does a great job of helping us see all those things. It’s cool to go through that and learn those things because it’ll help me in the future.”
Hill still enjoys running the routes that he used to as a tight end and claims he has the best hands on the team. He even jokingly lobbied passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton to split him and fellow fullback Henry Poggi out wide.
He once wanted to be like Delanie Walker, the standout tight end whom Jim Harbaugh once coached and compared Hill to. And while he still watches film of Walker, Hill now aspires to be more like Kyle Juszczyk of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers after spending much of the offseason watching Juszczyk’s tape and marveling at his pass-blocking ability.
When Hill does watch his own film, it isn’t of his numerous touchdowns. Rather, he focuses on his mistakes, such as a sack given up against Colorado that resulted in a defensive touchdown, a fumble against Iowa and a missed protection against Maryland.
Scoring, Hill said, is difficult. But he knows how to do it. Now, it’s about learning the intricacies of the fullback position.
“Actually, two scouts asked me why did I stay,” Hill said. “I just told them I wanted to graduate. … I kinda thought I wasn’t at a mature enough stage to understand (that) I have to take this stuff more seriously.
“Last year was a blessing in disguise. I wasn’t expecting to have that many touchdowns or do what I did. Now that I’m doing that, I’ve got to understand that I have to take it more seriously.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Kyle Juszczyk played for the Baltimore Ravens. That has been changed to reflect the current team Juszczyk plays for, the San Francisco 49ers.