Former Bison star starts in the backfield with Faulk

There have been quicker winners declared on "Star Search." "Joe Millionaire" didn't take this long to pick his bride. But finally, the Great Fullback Hunt of 2003 is over for the St.

There have been quicker winners declared on "Star Search." "Joe Millionaire" didn't take this long to pick his bride. But finally, the Great Fullback Hunt of 2003 is over for the St. Louis Rams.

"We've gone through four or five fullbacks trying to find the right guy, and he was sitting right in front of us the whole time," said head coach Mike Martz.

Namely, Lamar Gordon, the second-year running back from North Dakota State.

"Lamar's our starting fullback," Martz said following the Rams' 27-24 overtime victory against San Francisco this past Sunday. "We're going to do this like we did with Robert Holcombe. Lamar's too good a football player not to get on the field."

Holcombe came to the Rams in 1998 as the University of Illinois' career rushing leader. But he was converted to fullback after his rookie season and was the Rams' primary starter there in 1999 and 2000.


Holcombe was a willing blocker and an excellent special teams player, but Gordon is potentially a better runner and a much better receiver.

The Rams have been looking for a new fullback since the moment they released James "the Hammer" Hodgins on Feb. 27 rather than pay him a $750,000 roster bonus.

Shortly thereafter, Martz broached the subject about switching to fullback, but Gordon resisted. Lead-blocking was something he'd never done.

"I couldn't imagine just leading on 'isos' (isolation plays) and stuff like that," said Gordon, who at 220 pounds is more than 50 pounds lighter than Hodgins.

So the job became J.R. Niklos' to lose -- and he lost it before the first preseason game, in part because of a concussion. Then came Chad Kuhns . . . Brian Natkin . . . and Spencer Nead. And don't forget Maurice Rodriguez, a converted linebacker.

As the Rams sifted through one candidate after another, Martz kept the fullback option open to Gordon.

"Finally, I said, 'Lamar, look: You can stand next to me on the sideline and watch the game, and play occasionally (backing up Marshall Faulk),'" Martz said. "'Or you can run out there as the starting fullback and play most of the game. It's your choice.'"

Those words hit home on Sept. 7 in New Jersey. It was then and there that Gordon spent three hours on a beautiful late summer afternoon watching the Rams play the New York Giants. Faulk didn't need to be spelled at running back.


Brandon Manumaleuna, Natkin and even running back Arlen Harris all took turns at fullback. Gordon didn't play. Not a single down.

All of a sudden this fullback thing didn't sound so bad. Following the Giants game, Gordon spoke with running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery.

"I just asked him if there was any way I could get on the field," Gordon said. "He said he'd talk to Mike, and come up with something."

Last Thursday, Gordon started practicing at fullback, and he started there Sunday against the 49ers.

Occasionally, rookie Dan Curley lined up at fullback when the Rams were in their "tank" personnel -- two tight ends, two backs. But mostly it was Gordon.

Other than learning some of the motion responsibilities at fullback, the switch went smoothly. Gordon already was familiar enough with the fullback's blocking responsibilities from his running back duties.

"I know what they have to do, because I'm reading their blocks every play almost," he said. "The receiving routes, I know what they have to do because we're kind of interchangeable sometimes. So it wasn't too much. And I didn't have too big of a package (of fullback plays), so I could handle it."

Gordon finished with six carries for 31 yards against the 49ers, and caught three passes for 26 yards. Most of that yardage came at the running back position, replacing Faulk for part of the third quarter after Faulk suffered a bruised eye.


But the fullback position will give Gordon opportunities to run and catch the football, too.

"That's one of the biggest things," Gordon said. "I'm on the field and I can be part of it. I can contribute. Sometimes here and there you might have to lead-block. But you get involved with the game. After not playing at all in that Giants game, I took the opportunity. I need to play."

Gordon still backs up Faulk at running back. And according to Martz, he wants to remain listed as a running back on the roster. But as long as Faulk stays healthy, Gordon will see most of his playing time at fullback.

One of the keys to Martz's offense has been his use of motion, shifting and personnel groupings. Having Gordon in the backfield at the same time as Faulk gives him another toy in his offensive shell game.

"Can you imagine having those two backs in the backfield?" Martz said. "You don't know who's going to get the ball. You can throw to one. Hand off to one. But you can't do that until he buys into it. When he buys into it, then he's going to play his butt off. Which he's doing right now."

The shell game paid off in a big way against the 49ers. The San Francisco defense had enough respect for Gordon's running ability that several 49ers bit on a play-fake from quarterback Marc Bulger. Faulk was left open for a 22-yard gain on a screen pass that set up Jeff Wilkins' game-winning field goal.

"It was real fun," Gordon said. "Being out there with Marshall is even better than watching him."

Actually, anything's better than watching, Gordon has discovered. Even if it means playing fullback.

Reprinted with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ©2003

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