INDIANAPOLIS -- Jerome Felton grew up in Madison, Tenn., less than an hour’s drive from Knoxville. So it’s not surprising he was a fan of the University of Tennessee and its All-American quarterback or that when Peyton Manning moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, Felton began keeping a close eye on them.
He noticed something: no fullback.
“I was definitely surprised when my agent called and told me the Colts wanted me,” said Felton, a four-year NFL fullback who was released by Carolina two weeks before the Colts called. “They said they had a role to fill and they wanted me to come here and fill it.”
They weren’t lying.
Felton signed Nov. 28. Six days later, he played 21 of the first 35 offensive snaps at New England.
The telltale number was 31. That’s how many times the Colts ran despite trailing most of that 31-24 loss. They have exceeded that number only three times over the past three years. In the absence of Manning, who is not expected to play this season while recovering from neck surgery, the Colts have committed to the run. They have committed to having a fullback, or two.
“We always entertained the thought, but we’ve been so one-back oriented that we typically would only use a fullback in goal line and short yardage,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “Most games you only have five to seven plays in those situations.”
So the Colts saved the roster spot and made do using linemen like Dan Klecko, Darrell Reid, Eric Foster and Quinn Ojinnaka as fullbacks in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
The philosophy changed this year even before it became so painfully evident the running game would have to shoulder more of the burden. The Colts claimed fullback Chris Gronkowski (6-2, 245) off waivers from Dallas on Sept. 4. Gronkowski played mostly special teams and short-yardage situations for seven games before going on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 5.
Three weeks later, Ryan Mahaffey (6-2, 255) was signed, and when he suffered a concussion in his first game — against Carolina — Felton got the call.
Mahaffey is healthy again, Gronkowski is rehabbing and Felton is aboard. You can’t go into the Colts locker room, it seems, without bumping into a fullback. The I-formation the Colts have favored the past couple weeks is amply manned.
“I talked to [team vice chairman Bill Polian and vice president/general manager Chris Polian] when I went on IR,” said Gronkowski, who has a three-year contract. “It looks like they’re going to be looking to a fullback for at least this year and next.”
Mahaffey delivered a crushing lead block on Donald Brown’s 17-yard touchdown run against Carolina. Mahaffey also made a deft one-handed catch on a 5-yard sideline pass for a first down before the concussion. Felton caught a 7-yard pass at New England but did not have a carry.
No Colts fullback, in fact, has run the ball since the last Colts fullback. Luke Lawton rushed five times for 13 yards in 2007. You have to go back to Detron Smith’s single carry for 2 yards in 2004 for the last fullback run before that.
Look for a lot of I-formation fullback leads over the season’s final four games. Running the ball and balancing the attack will be of particular importance Sunday at Baltimore. If you’re one-dimensional against the Ravens, they can brutalize an offense with their pass rush.
Given the Colts’ current abundance, you might even look for a two-fullback set.
“Haven’t gotten there yet,” laughed Caldwell, “but stay tuned.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times