Duluth native Ham appears headed for larger role with Vikings
MANKATO, Minn. — Duluth native C.J. Ham flashed a big smile as he walked off the field on Monday, July 24, after the first day of Minnesota Vikings training camp.
What a difference a year makes.
"It does," Ham said. "A lot of things happen in one year."
Ham was wide-eyed and understandably more nervous in his first training camp last year as an undrafted rookie free agent from Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D.
This year, he appears more relaxed and is seeing more action after moving from running back to fullback.
With the departures of Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata and Zach Line in the offseason, the Vikings' backfield has a new look, with Ham the only fullback on the roster.
So while he patiently waited his turn for reps in camp last season, this season, whenever the play called for a fullback, he was out there.
"I'm just trying to make the most of all the reps I get," Ham said. "I'm out there more frequently. I'm out there with the first group, second group and third group, instead of just being out there with the 3s. That definitely makes a difference. You see the different level with each group."
Kennedy Polamalu, the uncle of former NFL Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu, is in his first season as Vikings running backs coach, but it hasn't taken long for the veteran coach to be impressed with the 2011 Duluth Denfeld graduate.
"C.J. works hard," Polamalu said. "I don't think the kid has ever known what a day off is, and I like that. He's driven, so every day he wants to get better, and every day he's gotten better. It's an opportunity, and he's not sitting back, he's working at it. That's what's great."
Even as the only fullback on the roster, Ham won't rest. He knows it's the NFL, where the Vikings could pick up another fullback or shift players around.
"I feel a lot more confident, but still anything can happen. Nothing is guaranteed." Ham said. "I'm not the starter like everyone thinks I am. I'm just another guy trying to earn a spot, trying to earn
my job, regardless if I'm the only (fullback). At the end of the day the Vikings can go, 'We don't need a fullback.' They can do a lot of things. I have to make sure I don't give them a reason to go that route."
With that kind of attitude, it's easy to see why the Vikings coaches like him.
Ham definitely has been eating his Wheaties. A gifted shot putter and discus thrower in high school and college, Ham was always strong, but he's packed on about 10 pounds of muscle knowing his role is now that of lead blocker. He is 5-foot-11 and between 240 and 245 pounds, like he was in college.
"I wouldn't say it's my job to lose," Ham said. "Regardless, if I was competing with somebody else or just by myself, it's all on me. I have to be the best me that I can be."
Fullbacks are known for going head to head with linebackers and don't always have the longest NFL shelf life, but it beats standing on the sidelines behind new acquisitions Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook, and veteran Jerick McKinnon.
"Obviously, running back is the more glamorous position, you get to score touchdowns and make the really big plays, but playing fullback, you still have a job to do," Ham said. "The team sees that and knows that."
That's not to say Ham won't eventually see pay dirt, with Line, his predecessor, scoring a pair of touchdowns in 2015.
Ham showed flashes as a runner with the Vikings last preseason. In the first preseason game, he led the team with 35 yards on 12 carries, including a 10-yard touchdown, while also catching a pass for nine yards. On Sept. 3, as part of the final roster cuts, he was released, but signed to the practice squad the next day. He was promoted to the active roster Dec. 23 but didn't play.
Vikings coaches like his versatility.
"C.J. is a good enough runner where you can hand him the ball in a one-back setting," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "The physical nature of training camp will help sort out where this goes.
"He is a physical guy. He can catch the ball well. He knows who to block in pass protection, so he has those traits, and then in the rare situation where you might hand him the ball, he has got some running skills, so those are the things he brings to the table."
Ham, who turned 24 Saturday, resides with his wife, Stephanie, and 1-year-old daughter, Skylar, in Eden Prairie, Minn., not far from the Vikings new headquarters in Eagan, where training camp will move to next year.
Ham often makes it back to Duluth, appearing at the Minnesota Duluth football game against Augustana last fall, and at fundraisers. Ham, the former Denfeld Hunter, will always be a Hunter.
"It's so nice to be able to go back, and give back," he said. "It is nice to have all that support back at home, just like last year. It feels really good to be loved by your hometown. You can never forget where you're from."