His jersey number is about the only thing that didn’t change for Vince Helmuth last season. The arrival of Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense in 2008 brought with it a diminished role for his brand of fullback, the position Helmuth was recruited to play for then coach Lloyd Carr. He did not see the field in the final six games of the season, something foreign to the Saline High School football star and 2007 letter winner.
That drove Helmuth to give defense a try and he’s currently working to secure playing time at noseguard or tackle. In Saturday’s spring game he made a few nice stops and will be working this summer to prepare for fall camp and the 2009 season.
Helmuth and I spoke last week prior to the spring game about his decision to move to defense, on Rich Rodriguez’s comments about his weight, about the prospect of his brother Gabe joining him on the team, on new coordinator Greg Robinson and more.
MVictors: Rich Rodriguez confirmed this spring that you are making the switch to defense. How did you approach the coaches about the change?
Helmuth: I played defense in high school and was pretty good at it, but I didn’t know exactly what it would take to play defense at a school like Michigan. Midway through last season I asked the coaches if maybe I could help out in another area. I went over to the scout team and basically got my behind whooped every day because I really didn’t know what I was doing. This off-season I’ve been working exclusively as a noseguard and defensive tackle. I think it was a good move.
MVictors: What drove the decision? Was it because Rich Rodriguez’s offense doesn’t feature a fullback the same way that say a Lloyd Carr offense uses that position?
Helmuth: Yes, but he [Rodriguez] does use a fullback in his offense. But I feel that we have such a stable of backs that fit the role a little better. I don’t think it was that I couldn’t play fullback in the system but maybe if I would have been a little a smaller, like closer to 240, it would have been easier.
MVictors: You mentioned your weight and on the spring roster you were listed at 299. In one of the first press conferences of the spring Coach Rodriguez teased you about your weight, saying you “went overboard”. Did it bug you that he called you out like that?
Helmuth: It didn’t really bother me. I guess if you want to get somebody to get something done like losing weight, that’s a great way to do it [laughs]. More than a few people asked me about it, people reading the newspaper and asking my parents about it. I hit 299 and then I started my diet.
MVictors: Was that press conference the first time you heard the coaches wanted you to slim down?
Helmuth: No, they said a few things about it but they never were like, ‘OK, time to stop gaining weight.’ A few days before that press conference we were working out, and I just wasn’t as agile as they wanted me to be and I heard about it from the coaching staff.
MVictors: Anything in particular you are doing to slim down, eating less, eating different?
Helmuth: All of the above. In high school I dropped a lot of weight right before my senior season, about 20 pounds. It went fast and it wasn’t too hard, you’ve just got to change what you’re going to eat. From going to the Union and grabbing Wendy’s, now I’m grabbing a can of tuna and putting relish or mustard in it. When I do eat poorly, it’s like once a week. I’m cutting the calories way out while keeping the protein as high as I can. And I’m running a lot more outside of football.
MVictors: Is there a target weight, to balance size and speed, or are you trying to see where you are comfortable?
Helmuth: Well, they are we done with letting me see where I am comfortable [laughs] because I was pretty comfortable at 299. I guess I wasn’t athletically comfortable but it was easy for me to be that heavy. The target is about 275, and I was 280 yesterday when I weighed in.
MVictors: I hear your brother Gabe is going to walk-on?
Helmuth: He’s in the process of reviewing his options. I’m pretty sure he’s going to walk-on, but not totally sure. I want him to do what he’s comfortable doing. Coming in as a walk-on you’re signing up for five years and I want him to make that decision, I try to stay out of it. I’ve been as hands off as I can, besides saying if he comes here we’ll be cool roommates, and all that stuff.
MVictors: Are there any downsides to having a brother as a teammate?
Helmuth: No. My brother’s one of my best friends. It’s like having one of your best friends come play sports with you. We played together in high school and I think that’d be a pretty neat thing. The only thing that would be hard would be watching him adapt to college football. My brotherly instinct kicks in a bit there. It’d be kind of weird watching him turn into a college football player. There were a few times in high school when I was a running back and I’d come through a hole, and he’s the linebacker. I’m like, ‘What do I do here? [laughs] Do I run my little brother over or not?’
MVictors: What kind of advice would you have for your brother if he does decide to walk-on?
Helmuth: Get ready to work like you’ve never worked before. At any college you’re going to be pushed where you’ve never been before. With the way we train, you’re going to get pushed past anything you ever thought you do, and when you think you can’t go anymore you’re going to have to go more.
MVictors: Do you like being close to the community where you grew up?
Helmuth: I think if I were a normal college student, it’d be a pain. But being this close, I can always go home if I need something. If need to borrow my parents’ car I can just get dropped off in Saline which is just 15 minutes away. I can always go up to my high school and see my coaches. And there’s such a good mix of people from around the country on the football team, I think you get exposed to other places anyway. The only thing that would have been nicer is to go play in the sun, but I guess I can deal with that.
MVictors: We’ve all seen the photos of Michael Phelps and the other incidents of athletes in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do the coaches talk to you about the perils of the internet and camera phones and all that?
Helmuth: Definitely. More when you first get to school, and after that it becomes second nature or a habit. You know to stay away from stupidity. All it takes is a picture of you doing something stupid. It happens about every day, somebody doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. The compliance office checks out people Facebooks, but guys on our team really don’t get in trouble for that stuff because I think we’re smart enough not to.
MVictors: Is there anything about [new defensive coordinator] Greg Robinson that might surprise people?
Helmuth: He’s a very good motivator. And he’s got a track record that is a mile long, he’s won Super Bowls, he coached Texas back when Vince Young was there, and he’s even been a head coach in Division I football. He really knows his stuff. I wouldn’t say he’s thrown a lot at us, but he’s thrown enough at us where you’ve really got to study what you’re doing. The one thing I’ve found impressive is that if something’s going wrong, he can pick it out right away instead of on film next day. He can tell instantly, especially with guys in the box, who’s missing their gap, who’s hesitating. He’s really intelligent that way.
MVictors: Are guys excited to play for coach Robinson?
Helmuth: Definitely. I think the whole team is motivated but especially on the defensive side, because there are a lot of spots they are filling in now. A lot of guys graduated and everything is up for grabs. That’s the way it is when a new coordinator comes in. Everyone’s working real hard and trying to stay as positive as possible.
MVictors: What are your personal goals for the year?
Helmuth: I really want to learn my position, make everything second nature and everything else will work out. It was a crazy fall for me, and I’ve been working very hard to get on the field. Some of that is out of my hands, but a lot of it is in my hands. The harder I work, the better I get technically, and the more film I watch improves my chances of getting some time next year. I want to get on the field.