Iowa football's Monte Pottebaum keeping Hawkeyes' fullback legacy alive

Alyssa Hertel
Hawk Central

Outside of Iowa’s state borders, Monte Pottebaum is a rarity in college football.

Pottebaum is a fixture in the Hawkeyes offense, and it just makes sense that the Larchwood, Iowa native stayed in state to continue his athletic career.

Because the fifth-year senior is so uniquely Iowa.

He was a high school letterwinner in four sports: football, wrestling, baseball and track.

He holds Iowa position records with a 3.92 short shuttle time and 435-pound power clean to go with 6-1, 247-pound frame.

He, and his bleach-blonde mullet, are easy to spot.

And Pottebaum plays a position that, outside of Iowa, has become more obscure.

Iowa fullback Monte Pottebaum carries the ball for a first down in the first quarter against Purdue.

The fall of the fullback

A fullback’s speed typically makes them a viable option for offenses in the modern game, and they become a sort of utility player that can get in the way of opposing defenses or create opportunities for their own offense.

While their teammates — like a quarterback or wide receiver — focus on a more specialized aspect of how the offense functions, fullbacks are called on to do a bit of everything.

They run on short yardage and goal-line situations. They have to be able to catch. And they are battering rams to clear the way for running backs.  

And yet, fullbacks are being used less in both college and professional football.

In the 2006 NFL regular season, there were “13,157 offensive snaps from formations with two running backs,” according to FiveThirtyEight. By the 2018 season, that number was down by nearly 10,000 snaps.

So, two backs in offensive formations are a bit rare in the NFL.

But what about in the Big Ten?

Iowa fullback Monte Pottebaum (38) rushes against Nebraska linebacker Garrett Nelson (44) during the second half of an NCAA college football game.

College programs still utilize some players at the fullback position.

But not like they used to.

Out of the 14 teams in Iowa’s conference, only three — including the Hawkeyes — list at least one fullback on their rosters.

Maryland has one: Redshirt freshman Joseph Bearns III.

Wisconsin lists two: Zach Gloudeman and Riley Nowakowski.

As for Iowa, there are five fullbacks on its roster: Pottebaum, Turner Pallissard, Eli Miller, Johnny Plewa and Denin Limouris.

And what sets the Hawkeyes even further apart from the crowd is that Iowa actually intends to use Pottebaum as a fullback.

How Iowa still utilizes the fullback

Pottebaum is the type of player who embraces change, especially if it opens up opportunities to get onto the field on game day.

He started as a linebacker at Iowa, but was moved to fullback in 2019.

He came to Iowa as a walk-on before earning a scholarship in 2020.

Now, he’s embraced his role in one of football’s less attractive offensive positions.

“The position of fullback is not a very glamorous position,” said strength and conditioning director Raimond Braithwaite with a laugh. “You’re basically a guard that winds up in the backfield and blocks.

“You have to find a guy who’s going to embrace the physical nature of the position because there’s a lot of contact involved and you’re not getting the glory. That’s what Monte has done. Once he figured out his niche, he did whatever it takes to get on the field.”

Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla (8) drops back to pass as fullback Monte Pottebaum (38) blocks during the Kids Day at Kinnick NCAA football practice.

Braithwaite saw the work Pottebaum put in firsthand. Whether that’s putting on 10 pounds of lean muscle or setting position records in the weight room, the fifth-year senior has done all the right things on and off the field to set himself up for success.

Iowa’s coaches have seen that work for years.

Now, the national media has taken notice.

In early August, Pottebaum was named to Bruce Feldman’s ‘College Football Freaks List’ for the 2022 season. Iowa’s fullback — one of four fullbacks on the list — came in at No. 52, and Feldman described Pottebaum as “one of the better blocking backs in the Big Ten.”

But as a fullback, it’s difficult to see Pottebaum’s contribution to the team if you are merely looking at individual statistics. He ran for only 76 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries through 14 games last season.

Just because Pottebaum doesn’t put together a flashy highlight reel or run in touchdown after touchdown, that doesn’t mean his on-field impact goes unnoticed.

“He does a job a lot of people don’t want to do,” position coach Abdul Hodge said. “But his blocking ability, a lot of the time he’s doing his job, he’s opening up holes, he’s creating seams in the offense. I think he’s gonna continue to do that whether we give him the ball or not.

“I don’t think he’s concerned with that. He’s more concerned with getting there and doing his job.”

And he’s done just that, making a name for himself in the Hawkeyes locker room and beyond. Or as Braithwaite described it, Pottebaum is the type of player that is willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team and because he’s done that, the people who didn’t know him before do now.

As for Pottebaum, he loves lining up as Iowa’s fullback. He says it’s the position he’s best at, and he knows it’s the right spot for him. Pottebaum doesn’t let the stats get in the way and he doesn’t keep track of how often the Hawkeyes use him in the offense.

“Most importantly, I want team success,” Pottebaum said. “Whether that’s me not carrying the ball at all or that’s me carrying the ball 100 times, I’m just working on helping the team get better and earning the coaches trust.”

While Iowa’s coaches have shown a lot of trust in Pottebaum, that sentiment goes both ways. He took a chance as a walk-on in Iowa City, and then again when the Hawkeyes moved him to fullback.

Now, he’s recognized as one of the best at his position.

So, what about the fullback position attracts Pottebaum so much?

“I love the physicality of it,” Pottebuam said. “There (are) no questions about the job I do. Either I block this guy and I move him, or I don’t. So, it’s pretty evident how good of a job I’m doing. I like that part. I think it just suits me and suits my personality. It’s just old-school football.”

Iowa junior running back Tyler Goodson, left, and junior fullback Monte Pottebaum celebrate in the end zone after Goodson scored a touchdown in the first quarter against Kent State.

The future of the fullback

Sure, Pottebaum calls it “old-school football.”

But he’s part of the reason why fullbacks are not only still used but thriving at Iowa. Pottebaum knows that putting a fullback on the field gives Iowa more of a physical presence. 

“The team sees us from across the line, they might be like, ‘Oh, these guys are really coming today,’” Pottebaum said. “I hope I help impose that mentality on the opposing team.”

Iowa’s coaching staff sees that, and the Hawkeyes won’t stop using a fullback anytime soon.

Not with someone like Pottebaum leading the way.

“When we have a guy like Monte, I think it’s just the way we are designed to win games,” Hodge said about why Iowa still uses a fullback. “Especially winning the Big Ten, we want to establish the run, and anytime you have a fullback like Monte Pottebaum that plays fast and physical, the way he plays the game, it helps the running game.”

With four other fullbacks on the roster, that legacy will continue once Pottebaum graduates. But he’s also set a high standard for those behind him, that playing fullback at Iowa is about more than just getting on the field.

It’s about keeping a tradition alive in Iowa football, all the way down to the youth and high school levels.

“Be a good leader in the position room, just answer all the questions that the younger guys have,” Pottebaum said. “That’s the main thing we’re trying to do here. When you come in, you’re probably not very good. But as you grow and as we move on, you become the player that you want to be.”

Alyssa Hertel is the college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at ahertel@dmreg.com or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.