For Valentine, touches equal touchdowns

Fullback Justin Valentine’s job could be a thankless one, but it hasn’t so far.

Dan Miller

After Minnesota’s 43-17 win over Northwestern on Saturday, running back Laurence Maroney said Big Ten defenses should be scratching their heads.

“They’ll say ‘Oh, they’re winning and (Marion) Barber (III) and Maroney aren’t scoring, so who are we going to try and stop now?’ ” Maroney said.

Penn State’s defense might be uttering those exact words now after watching film of redshirt freshman fullback Justin Valentine score three touchdowns against the Wildcats last week.

“They are a powerhouse in the backfield, and anytime a fellow fullback gets some carries, I am happy for him,” Penn State fullback Paul Jefferson said. “Our defense is going to have its hands full.”

Valentine’s touchdowns Saturday pushed his total to five in the Gophers’ first four games. His addition to the No. 19 Gophers’ already-potent running game is raising eyebrows.

Maroney and counterpart Barber are on pace to become the first duo in the history of the NCAA to repeat as 1,000-yard rushers. They are the top backs in the Big Ten and rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in the nation.

With Valentine producing yet another red-zone threat, the nation’s fourth-best rushing game has become even more dangerous.

Making the transition

Valentine was recruited as a tailback before making the move to fullback for the 2004 season.

At just 215 pounds, he weighs approximately 20 pounds less than his predecessor at the position, Philadelphia Eagles’ fourth-round pick Thomas Tapeh.

But coach Glen Mason said Valentine makes up for it.

“I’ve said all along, he gives us speed and quickness at that position,” Mason said. “If we needed a running back, he’d play running back. But we don’t need him at running back.”

Valentine said coaches first approached him about the move to fullback during the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, last season. He first started taking fullback reps during spring practices.

“(Fullback) is more physical,” Valentine said. “Tailback, you run behind the line. At fullback you’re opening the holes.”

Valentine now has to block 250-pound linebackers and 300-pound defensive linemen.

“Making that transition from tailback to fullback would be pretty tough,” Jefferson said. “Physically, I’m not going to say you have to be tougher to be fullback, but you have to be a little bit rougher.

“It’s one of those things that is physically taxing.”

Valentine has been expected not only to be a blocker at fullback but also a threat with the ball.

As it turns out, so far, that has been his best attribute. Valentine has been the epitome of efficiency near the goal line. In his nine carries and one reception this season, Valentine has five touchdowns.

Not a bad ratio.

First test

While he’s been given limited carries, Valentine has made the most of almost each one.

Almost.

Near the end of Minnesota’s 37-21 win over Illinois State on Sept. 11, Valentine fumbled near the goal line and the Redbirds recovered.

Valentine was chided by his coaches and even scolded by his mother, Neni Valentine, who told him to keep both arms around the ball.

Justin Valentine said Tuesday that it’s taken some time to get over the repercussions of that mistake.

“It’s hard,” he said. “That could have been any game. It could have been a bigger game than it was.”

He said he was down on himself for some time. But two weeks after the fumble, he got a boost in confidence when the Gophers’ coaches gave him a chance to redeem himself against Northwestern.

He touched the ball three times and scored a touchdown each time.

“It was good for my psyche just knowing that they had confidence in me to come back to me,” Justin Valentine said.

Frustration in position

Whether it’s the carries or the physical nature of being a fullback, Jefferson’s example shows the job isn’t always fun.

After Penn State lost two straight games and lost two quarterbacks in the second, Jefferson said Wednesday that frustration is setting in.

After being asked if he wanted more carries, Jefferson said he doesn’t exactly know how to articulate his feelings.

“It’s like, what more can I do?” he said. “I just don’t know how to put it.”

Even with the touchdowns, Justin Valentine still only has nine carries on the season.

During his high school career at Eastmoor Academy (Ohio) he rushed for 3,306 yards on 440 carries.

“Mentally, you have to deal with the fact that you are going to get less carries,” Jefferson said.

But with the Gophers winning and touchdowns coming, Justin Valentine said he is just happy to be on the field.

“You get less carries,” he said. “But you are a bigger part of the offense, because you have to open the holes for the guys and lead the way.”