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O'HARA: Fullback position returning to Lions' offense

Cory Schlesinger isn't coming out of retirement to step back into his old role in the Detroit Lions' offense.

But it's another matter for the position Schlesinger played for a dozen seasons with a punishing, throwback style that endeared him to fans and earned him the nickname "Sledge" from his teammates.

The fullback is coming back to the Lions' offense after a one-year absence. That was made clear when the Lions drafted fullback Nick Bawden of San Diego State in the seventh round.

That was welcome news to Schlesinger, who left behind a trail of big hits and broken facemasks -- upwards of 20 from his battering-ram blocks – in a career that gave him a place on the franchise's 75-year anniversary team.

For Schlesinger, when the going got tough, the more he enjoyed playing fullback and providing the guts for others to get the glory.

He expects whoever plays fullback to have the same passion and work ethic.

"It's real men playing real football," he said. "One coach told me, 'Stick your face in there. If you're soft, you won't be around very long.'"

There's something about the fullback position that provides an emotional link from the game's roots.  It's part of football's romance. The image of the fullback is the selfless guy with the bloody nose leading the way for others to pile up stats.

Fullbacks certainly don't make a living on their own stats. Case in point: Schlesinger and Tommy Vardell shared the fullback position in 1997-98. Vardell made Sports Illustrated's stat of the week in 1998.

Through 13 games, Vardell had 15 carries for 17 yards and six touchdowns. He was averaging more points per carry (2.0) than yards (1.13).

Restoring the fullback to the Lions' offense fits the shared vision of the style of team wanted by general manager Bob Quinn and new head coach Matt Patricia.

"Just something we kind of wanted to add to the mix to kind of give our offense a little more of, I'd say, a physical presence," Quinn said in his post-draft press conference.

Quinn stressed that Bawden is not guaranteed to fill the fullback position, but the plan for a more physical team is firmly in place.

"Listen, it's a seventh-round pick," Quinn said. "We wanted to add a fullback this offseason, and he was a good value at that pick.

"We want a big, strong, tough physical team in the trenches."

Schlesinger's toughness was cranked up to level 10 at all times – either on offense or playing special teams – in his 12 seasons as a Lion (1995-2006). The welcome mat is out to anyone to enjoy the fun that goes with playing the position – with some tips based on experience.

"It's a pretty nice gig, when you have a chance to light some guys up," Schlesinger said. "The next time, their eyeballs are on you as you're ready to light them up. It slows them down."

Schlesinger, who turns 46 next month, has been teaching in the Allen Park school system since retirement.

He learned some valuable lessons throughout his career, starting with how offensive coordinator Tom Moore planned to use him when he arrived in Detroit as a rookie.

"Tom Moore told me, 'You're not going to run the ball; you're not going to catch the ball,'" Schlesinger recalled. "'You're just going to block for No. 20 (Barry Sanders.)

"That was fine with me. It's kind of what I did at Nebraska. My main purpose was to block."

The fullback position has been phased out in recent years. About half the NFL teams did not list a fullback on their active roster last year, and the Lions did not have one after releasing 2015 fifth-round draft pick Michael Burton.

Players at other positions – such as linebacker Nick Bellore – were used in situations such as short yardage.

Schlesinger has seen the fullback position being phased out, and the trickle down of talent from the college game to the pros.

"The colleges don't run it, so there aren't a lot of players to choose from," he said. "There's no fullback in those offenses.

"It's just the way the offenses are running. It's tough running between the tackles. The ends can run 4.4 40s. You can't outrun them. You can't run between them because they're huge guys

"Maybe they're not making them as tough as they used to."

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