ATLANTA (AP) — James Develin will reach into his past every now and then by pulling out one of his notebooks from his junior and senior years at Brown University.
The New England Patriots fullback flips through a few pages, shakes his head and can barely recognize what he scribbled on them on his way to earning a degree in mechanical engineering in 2010.
“It’s just like looking at a whole different language,” Develin said with a big smile at the Patriots’ team hotel Wednesday. “I have no idea the stuff I did.”
That’s because the 30-year-old Develin has been fully focused on football the past nine years. More specifically, as the bruising, bulldozing fullback who smashes holes through defensive lines and powers the way for the Patriots’ running game.
“You’ve just got to be tough, got to be nasty, got to be physical,” running back James White said. “And he’s all of that.”
Develin is a bit of an anomaly in today’s NFL, playing a position that doesn’t even exist on many teams. Only 14 of 32 squads regularly lined up a fullback — something that would have been unheard of up until a handful of years ago as two-back sets were common for decades.
With a shift to faster, spread-out offenses, the need for a big bopper in the backfield has dwindled.
Except in places such as New England, which has used Develin on 68 snaps this postseason — a number that could represent a whole regular season’s worth for some of today’s fullbacks.
“I think the fullback position has always kind of got the moniker that it’s a dying breed, that it’s kind of on its way out, but I think football is such a matchup game and things work so cyclically,” Develin said. “As defenses get smaller and try to stop the passing attack, it kind of leaves them susceptible to, with lighter, faster guys on the field, for a power running game.
“I think there’s always going to be a legitimate use for a fullback and I’m just happy to be out there doing what I do.”
What Develin, who can squat 670 pounds and bench press 500, does isn’t always seen in the game stats. Taking on defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers looking to blow up plays in the backfield is the fullback’s responsibility.
For Develin, that means bursting open holes for the likes of White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. He thinks of himself as the “bodyguard” for the running backs.
“He’s definitely our protector out there,” White said with a laugh.
On the AFC championship-clinching 2-yard TD run by Burkhead, it was Develin who made a terrific block to clear things in front of him.
“I want to be the hammer,” Develin said. “Not the nail.”
That’s how it is during most games for the 6-foot-3, 255-pound bruiser. He has 13 career regular-season carries for 23 yards and five touchdowns, including four this season. Develin also set a career best with 12 catches for 61 yards.
He has two rushes for 5 yards in the playoffs this year, and a 9-yard catch, all while setting the tone for a Patriots running game that has averaged 165.5 yards this postseason — second only to New England’s Super Bowl opponent, the Los Angeles Rams (175.0).
Not bad for Develin, who didn’t exactly take a direct route to get here.
He was a defensive lineman in college, racking up 15 sacks in four years while earning that Ivy League education. But he went undrafted and began lining up interviews for jobs as an engineer before insisting on giving football a final try.
He had a few tryouts with NFL teams, but was told he wasn’t fast enough or flat-out good enough to make it as a pro. He played one game for the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena Football League.
“I never thought I’d abandon it,” Develin said. “This is a dream of mine. You know, I love the game of football and I was willing to do whatever it took to make it my livelihood. I never took no for an answer and just kept chugging away, no matter how many doors were slammed in my face. I just kept on going and working as hard as I possibly could and knew that the cards would eventually fall my way.”
Develin decided to give a switch to fullback a try, and got an opportunity with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League in 2010. He showed enough to land a spot on Cincinnati’s practice squad later that year, and was reunited with his former Tuskers coach in 2011 when Jay Gruden became the Bengals’ offensive coordinator.
The following year, Develin was one of Cincinnati’s final cuts out of training camp. Then came a call from the Patriots — and he has been a valuable piece of the Tom Brady-led offense since.
“He does so much for us,” Patriots center David Andrews said. “He’s such a dependable football player. He’s a tough football player. He adds that extra pressure to the defense and that extra toughness to our football team.”
So, Develin will keep pounding defenders for now. And, maybe one day after his football career is long over, he’ll hit the books again.
“I thought an engineering degree was a pretty good thing to have in my back pocket, so I went out there and got it done,” he said. “Then, I just followed my first dream, which was football, and it all worked out.”
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