There’s a lot more to Will Paul than the 261 pounds that he squeezes into his No. 34 Michigan jersey every fall Saturday. At one point – shortly after he came to Ann Arbor – Paul tipped the scales at close to 280 pounds, but that’s not really the point.
The point could be that the redshirt sophomore hadn’t made a start at Michigan until the Wolverines’ last game against Northwestern.
It could be that he used to seek out running backs to hit and now he patrols for defensive linemen.
Or maybe it’s that his best friend will finally be lining up on the opposite side of the ball this weekend at the Big House.
There’s a lot to Paul, but good luck getting a lot out of him. Like any modest “Michigan Man,” Paul would rather talk about the team’s play than his own accomplishments. That’s probably a good thing, since he’s yet to record a carry or a catch since switching to offense this past summer. In fact, he hasn’t even taken a handoff in practice this year. He is essentially Mr. Anonymous – he never gets the ball, but he’s willing to sacrifice his body to get his teammates into the end zone.
And maybe it’s this typical team-first attitude that makes Michigan’s newest starter the prototypical fullback – and the football field’s ultimate teacher of humility.
Call Will’s father, David Paul, to ask about his son, and he’ll joke that it must be a slow news day. It’s not often that the spotlight centers on Michigan’s fullback – especially one who has no touches in his brief career in the backfield.
Paul redshirted his freshman year before playing sparingly on special teams and the defensive line during his sophomore season.
Throughout middle school in Chesterfield, Mo., Paul wasn’t allowed to play football – the weight limit for seventh graders was just more than 100 pounds and he was too big. So Paul was relegated to the soccer field and baseball diamond until his father and his best friend’s dad decided to start a club team.
Finally, Paul had a chance to play on the gridiron, and he took advantage.
“It’s hard to explain,” David Paul said, “but there’s a camaraderie with those guys when you get out on the field – 11 guys hitting 11 other guys. – (Will) follows the (MLB’s St. Louis) Cardinals and lives and dies with them. But his passion is football.”
Paul’s team ran the triple option, and the rookie was a wing back on offense and played linebacker on defense. The team’s quarterback was a kid named Will Meyers, and Meyers’s dad, Ron, coached the team with help from other parents like David Paul. David said the team might have been the first of its kind, but the St. Louis suburbs are now sprinkled with scores of these squads.
“It’s given a lot of kids that are bigger a chance to start playing football before they get to high school,” David said. “Getting some direction is so valuable. It really helped the high school.”
And it seemed to help both Paul and Meyers, too. After four years at Parkway West High School, both were recruited by plenty of Division-I schools. Each of them eventually went on to play in the Big Ten.
Meyers, a three-star recruit ranked as the 53rd best safety in the nation, chose Indiana and immediately made his mark in Bloomington. He was named to the Freshman All-American team after recording 83 tackles, but he has battled injuries throughout his three-year collegiate career.
Paul took a slightly different path. A four-star recruit, Paul was even more highly touted than his buddy. Coming out of Parkway West, he was rated as high as the No. 2 tight end and No. 4 defensive end in the country. Powerhouses Wisconsin, Nebraska and UCLA all came calling.
“The major factor was academics and the tradition that Michigan has,” Paul said. “I knew about Michigan and the winged helmets, so the tradition and the academics were a big part of me coming here.”
So after high school, Paul and Meyers went their separate ways. But they still talk regularly – not so much about football, but more about life – and work out together when they are both back home. This weekend, their parents are flying up together to watch their sons compete at Michigan Stadium. Now that Paul is playing on the offensive side of the ball, he might actually get a chance to pop his former teammate. Plus, there’s always special teams, where both of them still see significant playing time.
“I’m hoping the two of them get to lock up on each other,” David said. “I’m sure they’ll be looking for each other.”
When Michigan coach Lloyd Carr recruited Paul, he saw the prospect as a defensive lineman. Paul was willing to give defense a shot, but he knew he would have to bulk up in order to stay on the “D-line” at a school like Michigan. At the time, the recruit was small – listed at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds – but fast (he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash and ran on the 4×100-meter relay team his senior year).
So he went to Mike Gittleson, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, and Caroline Mandel, the team’s nutritionist. At one point during his training, Paul weighed nearly 280 pounds, but he was generally closer to 270.
At that weight, Paul was able to battle with 300-plus-pound offensive linemen. He played on the Michigan scout team, wrestling in the trenches against star blockers such as David Baas and Jake Long.
“They would coach me with hand placement and trying to get lower and playing better,” Paul said.
Then something changed. Carr wanted Paul to play on the offensive side of the ball. The coach approached his pupil at the end of last April’s spring practice and told him he was thinking about making the switch.
“He was excited about it, which made me excited about it,” Paul said. “He said, ‘We really feel that to help this team, it would be better if you moved to fullback.’ And I agreed with him.”
Paul told his dad, “I think it’s a good opportunity for me.”
Making the position swap meant a lot more work for Paul, but he didn’t care. It meant bringing home the playbook and studying it all day, every day, for the one week he was allowed to go home last summer. But his parents were willing to sacrifice – after all, they had already made the nine-hour trip to Ann Arbor for just about every game, even though their son primarily occupied a spot on the Michigan bench. It also meant that Paul had to lose the eight pounds he had gained in order to play defense. Paul’s complaint was one the majority of America’s increasingly obese population wishes it could make.
“It was more of a challenge putting on the weight than losing it,” Paul said.
As the football season approached, Paul readied himself for a big change. He saw his first game action at fullback on Sept. 3 against Northern Illinois, and he has played fullback in every game this year. Before the beginning of the Big Ten season, he turned in his old defensive No. 92 for a more traditional fullback number, 34. Paul competed with Brian Thompson and Obi Oluigbo throughout the summer and fall, but he didn’t get his first start until Oct. 29 at Northwestern. He continues to impress his coaches with his work ethic and quick learning, and he is listed at the top of depth chart again this week.
“I told him that we’d be there whether he’s starting or standing on the sideline,” David said.
In his first career start, Paul at times looked more like a defensive lineman than a fullback. On two different plays inside the 10-yard line, quarterback Chad Henne spotted Paul out in the flat and tossed the pigskin in his direction. Twice, Paul dropped both the ball and a potential score.
“I was just excited to try to get the ball and turn upfield and try to get some extra yardage,” Paul said. “It really didn’t come across my mind to get in the end zone because, with the way I was positioned, I couldn’t really see who was behind me.”
But here’s the last secret about Paul: He actually has good hands. In high school, he made 34 grabs for 384 yards and four touchdowns as a tight end and fullback. He was a pitcher, catcher and centerfielder on the baseball team and even got offers from small-time college baseball programs. Carr said that Paul always holds onto the ball in practice and that the drops were a fluke.
Once Paul manages to get his hands on the ball, he’s in danger of losing his biggest asset – his anonymity.