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    Hybrids, Griffins and Centaurs: The Superbacks

    NUSPORTSDOTCOM Northwestern's superbacks celebrate a Josh Rooks touchdown against Syracuse in 2008.
    Northwestern's superbacks celebrate a Josh Rooks touchdown against Syracuse in 2008.

    Aug. 21, 2009

    By SKIP MYSLENSKI, Special Contributor

    KENOSHA, Wis. -- You are Josh Rooks, superback, which is the same label that hangs from Drake Dunsmore and Brendan Mitchell and Mark Woodsum. But, really, what are you guys? One minute out here in beautiful Kenosha you are down at the far end of the field drilling with The Hogs of the offensive linemen. Then, a mere period later, you are on a different field running routes with willowy wide receivers. Finally, during down-and-distance drills, here you are split out, there you are set tight, here you are in the backfield, there you are standing on the sidelines.

    "I love being a hybrid," you say when asked about that and that is exactly what you and yours bring to mind. You call up memories of the griffin, that creature from Greek mythology that had a lion's body attached to the head, wings and claws of an eagle, or maybe it's the centaur, which is familiarly pictured with the head and torso of a human and the body of a horse.

    "You get a chance to hit people. I love to hit people," you are now continuing, explaining the attraction of your job. "And you also get a chance to go down and make some plays, catch the ball. In my mind, there's no better position to play. You get the best of both worlds and you really get to play the whole game of football. It's a lot of fun."

    Of those in your quartet, you and Dunsmore are expected to have the most fun in the season now rushing toward us. But, again really, just what kind of fun is that going to be? Last year, when your 'Cats had 279 receptions, just nine of them were made by you hybrids, and of the 2,817 yards those receptions accounted for, your collective contribution was a mere 52.

    Then there is this. In your two years on the job, you have only eight catches, which is just a bit better than the three-year numbers of Mitchell and Woodsum, who have (respectively) four and three. Dunsmore, sidelined last fall with a torn-up knee, did have a respectable 11 back in '07. But, surely, you can understand why your coach Pat Fitzgerald recently said, "The position I think that gets lost for us is our superbacks. . .



    "Our superback position will be involved in our offense. So are we going to be a four-wide team, a three-wide team, a two tight-end team? That will tell through competition. But it gives (offensive coordinator) Mick (McCall) and our offensive staff a lot of flexibility."

    Now that, and pardon us for being skeptical here, seems to be an annual August promise for public consumption that gets forgotten once the real hitting begins. But then, in the wake of his boss's proclamation, here is your coordinator himself declaring, "Those are some of our better football players on offense and we feel we have to use them. . . We're all about playing the best guys we've got. We feed our system to them."

    You yourself are certainly well fed at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, which makes it no surprise that he describes you as "A big guy on the line of scrimmage, he can block on the line of scrimmage. He's a good receiver too. He can split out and we can play him outside a little bit. That's a nice thing to have. You can set an edge once in awhile without being in empty so much." Your partner Dunsmore, in contrast, is a mere Lilliputian at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. But, says your coordinator, "He's a real athletic guy who can play outside very, very easily. He can stretch down the field. . . Drake can play that receiver, slash H Back (wide receiver), slash, tight-end kind of guy."

    So together the two of you are, actually, a hybrid within a hybrid, which is the strange reality you are discussing after your practice has ended and you've finished skittering from here to there and back again. "There's a lot of meeting time with coaches, getting on the same page with everybody," Dunsmore is saying.

    "We do a lot of drill work," you are saying. "It used to be we'd work a lot more with the O line. Now we're working more with the receivers, getting some coaching from the receivers' coach. We're a very diverse position group. It's tough being a wide receiver and a lineman at the same time. But, basically, that's our job."

    "We train for all phases of the game," Dunsmore is saying. "Speed and power and quickness. There's nothing we leave out."

    "The big thing at any position is you've got to stay focused. You never know when you're going to go in," you are saying. "So when you're not in, you're constantly making mental reps. You could be the Y (wide receiver), the H (also wide receiver), we can be split out, be on the line. Every play we visualize, make sure we know what the players on the field are doing, and we coach each other up as well."

    "By the time you've gone through camp and learned all this stuff, it's muscle memory, brain reps," Dunsmore is saying. "So the quarterback says something, it's like that" -- and he snaps his finger -- "you know. You see the defense and you know what plays to run."

    Maybe, just maybe, you will finally have more than just a few plays run your way this season. Your coordinator, in fact, promises that when he says, "I've had guys like this before at different levels and we've got to utilize their talents. You know, it's hard to cover a big strong guy and put a DB on him. It's hard to bring a bunch of DBs in and stop the run when we can run with those guys. Those kinds of guys create problems for a defense."

    "We love that. We love to hear that," is how your partner Dunsmore responds to that. "But you can't think about it too much. We're just working as hard as we can to make the biggest impact we can on the offense."

    With you and yours, though, you just never know how that impact will be made.

    You are hybrids, griffins, centaurs.

    You are superbacks.