Rather than settle for another year of mop-up duty behind first-team Tennessee fullback Ben Bartholomew, Fugate has switched to linebacker this spring. It's a move he knows can work ... mainly because former Vol Austin Johnson successfully made the same move two years ago.
"Austin came back for Pro Day, and I saw him in the locker room," Fugate recalled following Monday's first spring practice. "He said, 'You're doing the same thing I was doing ... the same time frame and everything.' That was pretty cool."
Basically, Fugate is following in Johnson's footsteps. After two years as a Vol fullback, Johnson filled a key reserve role at linebacker his junior year, then led Tennessee in tackles (81) and interceptions (4) as a senior starter last fall.
After also spending two years at fullback, Fugate is hoping to make the same transition with the same kind of success. Here's the catch: Johnson was an ultra-productive linebacker at Hickory (N.C.) High School, recording 580 career tackles. Conversely, Fugate played mostly safety at Breathitt County High in Jackson, Ky. Still, he's excited about the move.
"I always said that if I didn't play running back I'd want to play linebacker," he said. "I think it's a fun position, and I should have fun with it."
Fugate had fun as a freshman fullback in 2010, starting five games near the end of the season. He toiled behind Bartholomew the final 11 games of the 2011 season, however, and probably would've been relegated to the same role in 2012. Knowing this, he went to head coach Derek Dooley with a proposal.
"I went and talked to him, actually," Fugate recalled. "I wanted to see if I could help the team in another way. I was thankful Coach Dooley let me have the opportunity. Once he moved me, I couldn't wait to get spring going."
Knowing linebacker was his likely destination, Fugate dropped 20 pounds — from 245 to 225 — to prepare for his new role.
"I figured my other opportunity might be linebacker," he said. "That's what I thought, and that's what happened. Whether we were going to play a 3-4 or a 4-3, I thought I could help at some linebacker spot."
Because new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is implementing more of a 3-4 scheme, Fugate faces the same learning curve as Tennessee's other linebackers. All essentially are starting from scratch this spring.
"Everybody's starting on the same page with a new staff coming in," Fugate noted. "That should give everybody an equal opportunity to learn the playbook and make plays."
After just one practice, Fugate already believes he is going to enjoy his new outpost.
"I just like getting out there and being able to make plays — blitzing, pass coverage," he said. "Coach Sal is going to put us where we have a chance to make plays."
Asked if Sunseri is the live wire he is reputed to be on the practice field, Fugate smiled and replied: "He is, most definitely."
One of 13 scholarship players listed at linebacker this spring, Fugate is currently working at the weakside position. He believes it's a nice fit for his skill set.
"I think it's good," he said. "You can do a lot of different things. I think Coach Sal is going to have us in the right spots to make plays."
Although he packed 235 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame in high school, Fugate says he generally lined up at safety. Still, he got plenty of work stuffing the run.
"We played mostly run teams, so I was basically a linebacker ... just a little deeper off the ball," he recalled. "Teams didn't throw a whole lot."
Conversely, the teams on Tennessee's 2012 schedule will be throwing quite a bit. That means Fugate has a lot to learn between now and fall.
"The big adjustment is learning the whole concept of the defense, since I haven't been on defense in awhile," he said. "We studied defenses while I was on offense but now I've got to know the complexities of the defense, know what everybody's doing."
After just one day of practice with Sunseri and his staff, Fugate believes Tennessee's defensive assistants are a quality group.
"They seem great," he said. "They know what they're talking about. They come from programs that win, so I'm just going to listen to them and let them teach me all they know."
That's a good idea. The path from fullback to linebacker can be a bit challenging. Just ask Austin Johnson.
To hear more from Fugate, click play on the video below: