Minnesota football coach Glen Mason began to notice the professional scouts at practice staying longer than usual about a month ago.
He came to learn they were staying to watch one of his running backs – but not for his running ability. They were watching Thomas Tapeh block.
“He’s become a complete back,” Mason said. “When you look at a back that size, he can become very versatile. You hear talk at all levels that you can find guys who can run the ball. But, at the same time, who’s willing to block back there?”
As it turns out, Tapeh is.
In the five-legged rushing animal the 25th-ranked Gophers (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) have ridden to the top of the nation in yards gained on the ground, Tapeh has made his mark throwing lead blocks in front of the other backs on pitches, sweeps and options.
Minnesota’s 2,086 yards rushing rank first in Division I, and the team’s 5.73 yards per carry are a close third. The Gophers climbed to the top this weekend by running for 424 yards in a 38-35 loss to No. 17 Michigan.
The total was the most the Wolverines have allowed in one game in their 124-year history.
Of Minnesota’s 53 carries in the contest, 12 went to Tapeh. About half the remaining 41 were pitches, sweeps or options.
The success of these plays often hinges on the blocks Tapeh lays in front of running backs Marion Barber III, Laurence Maroney and Terry Jackson II and quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq.
“You know every time Thomas is in front of you, whoever he’s supposed to block is going to get blocked,” Maroney said. “You don’t ever have to worry about Thomas missing a block. Every time, I feel comfortable with Thomas in front of me, because I know that it’s an extra five yards wherever I go.”
The 230-pound senior fullback/tailback was a second-team All-American and Minnesota state player of the year in 1998 at the latter position.
Injuries have plagued his career at Minnesota, and he battled them despite playing all 13 games and rushing for 906 yards last season.
Though never able to fully assert himself as the top-tier tailback he might have liked to be, Tapeh knows the lead blocks and short-yardage rushing he provides for his team might just be what gives him a chance at playing football after he graduates.
“I don’t know what my injuries did for me, but what I can say is that they set me back,” Tapeh said. “When that set me back, it opened up my eyes. Ö It made me see a lot of things that, if I wouldn’t have gotten hurt, I never would’ve saw.
“That it set me back and put me in a different position, it made me see even more. If that’s my ticket (to professional football), then I’m taking advantage of it.”
Tapeh admitted he didn’t think his four-plus years at Minnesota – including a redshirt year – would go as quickly as they have.
Now on his final go-around at Minnesota, he knows the personnel on his team dictate a role he might not have expected when he enrolled at the school.
The speedy and nimble tailbacks for whom he clears a path surely appreciate his role and the success to which it has translated.
“It’s fun,” Tapeh said. “(The fullbacks) always blocked for me, so I guess now I have to return the favor.
“We’ve always had the (outside running play), but we didn’t always have the right personnel to run it. The whole offense is based around the personnel.”
The team’s personnel has given the players reason enough to be optimistic this season. Even after the disheartening loss Friday, the
Gophers are still thinking of going to Pasadena for the holidays and the Rose Bowl.
And they are still emphasizing the positives from the Michigan game, when they dominated the Wolverines for three quarters.
One of these positives was a record-setting running game lead-blocked by Tapeh.
Whether he prefers that type of recognition is debatable, but there is a deeper force at work than Thomas Tapeh and his position on the depth chart.
“Do I feel like I’m a fullback?” Tapeh said. “I feel I’m doing what’s best for the team. The position I play on the field is labeled as a fullback. But, in my heart, I know what I am. I’ll leave it at that.”