Alabama's unsung hero: Fullback Michael Nysewander
DALLAS — Back in his parents' home in Hoover, Ala., a few months ago, Michael Nysewander fired up an old PlayStation game and realized his middle school self had predicted the future. The Alabama senior clicked on the custom player section tool and saw himself as a Crimson Tide fullback. Not a quarterback. Not a tailback. A fullback.
Most middle schoolers would have selected a more glorious position, but Nysewander's favorite Alabama player was fullback Tim Castille, who had played for the Crimson Tide from 2003 to '06. Even as a teenager, Nysewander had been drawn to a position that paves the way for the guys who score the touchdowns. Unfortunately for him, there was a major impediment standing between him and his dream of anonymously mauling defenders so others could score all the points and get all the credit. The high school powerhouse that Nysewander played for didn't have a fullback in its offense.
Why is Campus Rush running feature stories on the fullbacks* from Alabama and Michigan State this week? Because given the direction of college football in recent years, Thursday's Cotton Bowl might be one of the final times two teams that use fullbacks face off in a matchup of this magnitude. Many college teams have adopted one-back spread offenses that have no need for a not-quite-tall-enough, not-quite-heavy-enough, not-quite-fast-enough battering ram. Even more high school teams have embraced similar offenses, favoring schemes that use the width of the field and allow quarterbacks to distribute the ball to a variety of receivers.
*The Crimson Tide list Nysewander as a tight end, but he is actually more of an H-back. And since the offense began leaning heavily on junior tailback Derrick Henry earlier this season, Nysewander has been asked to play like a traditional fullback. Plus, he is proud to be known as a fullback.
When Nysewander played at Hoover High, the Buccaneers ran just such an offense. The scheme had no position for a contact-loving player who wasn't big enough to play on the offensive line. So, Nysewander played defensive end and, on the occasional passing down, the 6-foot, 216-pounder would shift inside to nose tackle. The demand for 216-pound defensive linemen in college remains fairly thin, so Nysewander didn't get much recruiting interest beyond the Division III level. But he had always loved Alabama, and he knew he planned to attend school in Tuscaloosa. Former Crimson Tide linebacker Cory Reamer, who also previously played at Hoover High, suggested that Nysewander attempt to walk on. Fortunately, Nysewander had a man on the inside to help with the process. When Nysewander started at Alabama in 2011, former Buccaneers defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer was working in the Crimson Tide's player personnel department. Sherrer, now the linebackers coach at Georgia, had coached Nysewander and knew exactly what kind of player would show up for the walk-on tryout.
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Still, even after making the team, Nysewander never expected to play the kind of role he has as a fifth-year senior. He spent his redshirt season as a scout-team linebacker getting pounded by Alabama's NFL-bound offensive linemen. "I'd been watching these guys, and now I was on the field with them," Nysewander said. "They seemed larger than life at the time. I felt honored to be on the same practice field." During bowl practice that redshirt year, Crimson Tide running backs coach Bobby Williams asked Nysewander if he might consider moving to offense. Nysewander hadn't played any offense in high school, but he was happy to do whatever his coaches asked.
Just as a young Nysewander would have predicted, he loved doing the dirty work to spring big plays. Also, the student of the game in Nysewander marveled at the versatility of the fullback position. Besides the obvious blocking advantages, a fullback can expand the passing game and force a defense to adjust to shifting formations. "It gives the defense so many different looks," he said. "If you're sitting there looking at a fullback, you don't know if he's going to come block you. You don't know if he's going to slice back against the formation. You don't know if he's going to go out for a pass. You could hand him the ball."
Here, Nysewander stopped himself. "Well, not in our offense," he said with a chuckle.
Nysewander fits so well at fullback in part because he has never particularly enjoyed the spotlight. But during middle and high school, he occasionally found himself thrust into the public consciousness because of something his father, JT, said at work. JT Nysewander hosts a morning show on a Birmingham news-talk station, and he spoke often on the air of his son's and daughter's hijinks growing up. Michael's middle and high school classmates would inevitably hear these mentions, which turned him into a reluctant minor celebrity. But in Tuscaloosa, toiling away on the H-back/fullback depth chart, Nysewander could enjoy the camaraderie and contact of football without the notoriety he had occasionally experienced at home.
JT understood his son's mindset completely after a conversation following a game in Michael's sophomore season. JT had mentioned how he wished the coaches would use Michael more often. "He stopped me mid-sentence," JT said. Michael proceeded to tell his father and mother that the bulk of the joy he derived from football came from the time spent in the weight room and locker room with his teammates, and from the collisions on the practice field. If he got on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, that was merely gravy. Michael Nysewander already felt fulfilled.
Still, the work ethic JT and Judy Nysewander noticed throughout Michael's childhood wouldn't allow him to keep playing a bit role. His defensive past made him an excellent cover man on the kickoff team, and that earned him the respect of teammates and coaches. Having grown to 6' 1" and 237 pounds, Nysewander was big enough to drive linebackers out of gaps. When Jalston Fowler's eligibility expired after last season, Alabama needed another trustworthy player to take on the unglamorous task of being a lead-blocker. As it became clear the Tide's offense would go as far as Henry could carry it, Nysewander's role became more critical. "My main goal when I got here was to be a part of this dynasty and legacy and contribute maybe just on scout team," Nysewander said. "When I realized I did have a shot to play, it was just a dream come true."
Nysewander has spent this season as Henry's advance guard, crushing linebackers or defensive ends to open holes for Alabama's star. Henry knows he can usually follow number 46 into a clear path. After he rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's 30–16 win over LSU on Nov. 7, Henry revealed the team's nickname for Nysewander. "Highway 46," Henry said, smiling. "I'm riding a long way."
He rode all the way to the Heisman Trophy. While Henry accepted the award in New York, Nysewander watched on television with friends at a Tuscaloosa restaurant. After the announcement, he beamed. "I played a small role in that," he said. "Just a little bit." As usual, he is underestimating his contribution. This season, his coaches gave him Alabama's Unsung Hero award. His teammates voted him the most inspirational player. Earlier in the year, Nysewander nearly brought Tide coach Nick Saban to tears.
Nysewander caught a 19-yard touchdown pass in a 34–0 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 26. His teammates mobbed him, and on the sidelines a certain coach with a reputation for emotional detachment celebrated along with them. "It almost made me cry, to be honest with you," Saban said on his radio show a few nights later. "Here's a guy that's been in the program for four or five years. A walk-on. Works hard every day. Overachiever. Does everything that any coach would ever want a player to do."
Nysewander has tasted the end zone twice in his career, but he still ranks scoring touchdowns behind the following two football experiences:
1. Crumpling a defender to open a hole for a tailback to score a touchdown.
2. Creaming a return man on a kickoff.
This ranking doesn't surprise Nysewander's teammates. "That's just the type of person he is," senior tailback Kenyan Drake said. "He's willing to help somebody else before his own shine." This mentality could help Nysewander continue playing football longer than he ever dreamed possible. While the fullback is a dying position in the college and high school game, most NFL teams still use one. The fact that Nysewander can play fullback, cover kicks and long snap—he is the Crimson Tide's backup in that role—should get him invited to an NFL camp. Whether he makes a roster will depend on how well he does all those things against the best in the game, but he'll get a chance.
When Nysewander's football career ends, he wants to become a graduate assistant and begin learning to coach at the college level. And while he plans to keep an open mind schematically, he does not intend to join the generation of coaches intent on driving the fullback to extinction.
"If I'm the coach," he said, "we'll play with one."