By Chris Low
MOBILE, Ala. -- Owen Schmitt
has yet to mangle any face masks during this week's Senior Bowl practice, although there still is time for him to add to his famed collection.
Legend has it that he broke 10 face masks during his West Virginia career, a testament to the way the bruising, 6-foot-1, 247-pound fullback plays the game.
"He's got a hard head and won't quit coming at you," Penn State linebacker Dan Connor
said admiringly. "I like his style. He's old-school. He's tough and rugged. Going against him … it's like 1972 football."
Schmitt, playing on the North team, is widely considered one of the two top fullbacks in the NFL draft, along with Arkansas' Peyton Hillis
, who is playing on the South team.
It didn't take Schmitt very long this week to introduce himself to his teammates, specifically the defensive guys.
On Monday, after hauling in a short pass out of the backfield, Schmitt planted California safety Thomas DeCoud
in the turf, then dragged him for about 5 yards.
"I've got to get those little guys back," Schmitt said, wearing a wry smile. "I keep getting blasted behind the back over here [during team periods], so I have to get them back a little bit."
Schmitt's toughest critic this week has been himself. He wasn't pleased with the way he started off blocking.
"I'm not moving the guy. I'm kind of fitting up and staying stationary," he said.
Of course, he also kept losing his helmet, showing off his trademark Mohawk haircut. Connor joked that the helmet coming off was the result of Schmitt hitting guys so hard.
"You don't have to look around when he hits somebody," Connor said. "You know who it is by the way it sounds."
At one point, Schmitt's helmet popped off while he was blocking Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable. In vintage fashion, Schmitt never even thought about stopping.
"The whistle didn't blow yet, so you keep going," Schmitt said, shrugging.
Used some as a tight end in his last season at West Virginia, Schmitt has the versatility to play a number of positions in the NFL. He showed off his speed in the Mountaineers' 48-28 rout of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl with a career-long 57-yard touchdown run.
He had runs of 50 yards or longer in the Mountaineers' two previous bowl games but was chased down each time. Not against the Sooners, though.
"It was a little monkey lifted off my back," Schmitt said. "I was actually looking up at the JumboTron to see if there was anybody behind me. I wasn't going to look behind me."
Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, who coached running backs in the NFL, faced Schmitt each of the past two seasons and thinks he can play in any system.
"He's exactly what you're looking for, a big guy who can block, can run, can catch the football and be your short-yardage guy," Croom said. "You can do so many things with him. That's what makes him so valuable."
Tom Rathman, who also knows a little something about playing fullback in the NFL, has had a close-up view of Schmitt this week. Rathman won two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers while clearing the way for Roger Craig and now is the running backs coach of the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders' staff is coaching the North team this week.
"Everything you look for in a fullback, he has," Rathman said. "It's about him taking it to the next level, getting better in everything he does, whether it be the pass game or the run game. He's got to get better as a blocker. But he has the tools to take that next step. It's a matter of how fast he progresses."
The comparisons between Rathman and Schmitt are obvious, but Rathman stopped short of calling them mirror images of each other.
"Nah, I was a lot better looking than he is," Rathman quipped.
At the Senior Bowl weigh-in, Schmitt was 10 pounds lighter than his senior playing weight. He said he was an "overweight" 257 pounds this past season and needed to trim down.
Schmitt gets a chuckle out of being asked whether he would be willing to play H-back or even special teams in the NFL.
"I'll play water boy if they want to draft me," he said. "I don't care. I'd punt if they really wanted me to. I just want to impress some people and show them what I can do."
It's that kind of "I've got something to prove" mentality that has driven Schmitt, who became one of the Mountaineers' permanent team captains.
After playing his first season at Division III Wisconsin-River Falls, he started his West Virginia career as a walk-on. He went from scout team to full-time starter in 2005 and made 21 career starts -- 10 at tailback, seven at fullback and four at tight end.
"It's been an experience, a fun journey, a lot of ups and lot of downs," Schmitt said. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm glad I took the road I did. You've got to prove yourself, and everyone here is still proving themselves.
That never stops in the NFL. You've got to prove yourself every day in the NFL. And if you don't, you're not going to be there for very long."