Standout Huskie Ratkovich should be drafted to NFL

Redshirt+senior+running+back+Clint+Ratkovich+runs+down+the+field+during+NIUs+game+on+Sept.+11+at+Huskie+Stadium+against+Wyoming.

Courtesy of Scott Walstrom | NIU Media Services

Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich runs down the field during NIU’s game on Sept. 11 at Huskie Stadium against Wyoming.

By Skyler Kisellus, Sports Reporter

Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich has made a strong case to have his name called in this month’s NFL Draft after a lone season in NIU’s offensive backfield. 

The “superback” out of Crete is widely considered to be a fullback despite being officially listed as a running back on NIU’s roster.

Ratkovich carried the ball 104 times for 461 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2021. He also had 15 receptions for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns through the air. He was primarily used in short-yardage situations throughout the season.

Ratkovich has proven his ability to adapt to a new system after transferring to NIU after four years at Western Illinois University. Even more so, Ratkovich emerged as a key piece in the Huskie offense despite splitting carries with freshman running backs Harrison Waylee and Jay Ducker.

Due to the decline of the fullback position in recent years, Ratkovich is likely to be a day three pick or an undrafted free agent signing. It is also possible that teams might convert him to a different position such as a running back or tight end.

From NIU superback to Pro Bowl talent

Head coach Thomas Hammock has been one of Ratkovich’s biggest supporters since he joined the Huskies as a graduate transfer from WIU in Jan. 2021. The former NIU running back and third-year coach has praised Ratkovich’s intelligence and grit.

“Guys like (Clint Ratkovich) last 8-10 years in the NFL. His football IQ, toughness, discipline and position flexibility will allow him to be a (key) piece at the next level,” Hammock said in a tweet on Dec. 31.

Hammock, a former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, has often compared Ratkovich to six-time Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Hammock worked with Juszczyk in Baltimore from 2014 to 2016. Ratkovich also had an opportunity to connect with Juszczyk during the week of the East-West Shrine Bowl.

I’m willing to do whatever it takes (to get on the field). Just the versatility I bring to the table, I feel like it’s something that can’t be matched. On the field, it’s always 100% for me. You’re never going to get any less.”

— Clint Ratkovich

Ratdog’s path to the draft

NFL scouts had their first opportunity to watch Ratkovich up-close during NIU’s Pro Day on March 30. He clocked in at 4.64 seconds in the 40-yard dash and posted a 34-inch vertical jump.

“It was awesome (the scouts) were asking me to do a variety of things, that I could show my versatility,” Ratkovich said in an NIU Athletics news release following his Pro Day performance. “I felt that I had a good day and I heard that from a couple of scouts.”

Ratkovich’s outing earned him another opportunity to prove his worth at the Chicago Bears’ Pro Day. Ratkovich, along with redshirt senior linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr, senior punter Matt Ference and redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie, worked out at Bears facilities in front of team personnel.

What’s being said

Pro Football Network has described Ratkovich as a “multi-threat fullback who is effective as a blocker and ball carrier.” Ratkovich has been commended for his on-field vision and ability to locate cutback lanes.

Getting through gaps on running plays and keeping the feet moving have also been some of Ratkovich’s strong suits. His likely biggest strength, though, is his ability to pick up blocking assignments and serve as an extra layer of protection for the quarterback.

Taking into account the speed and athleticism of backs in today’s game, Ratkovich’s limitations in these areas have been his biggest knocks in the process. His time of 4.64 seconds is tied for the second-slowest amongst running backs who participated in the NFL Combine on March 4.

Considering Ratkovich’s position, speed is not the forte of the fullback position. Two of the NFL’s top fullbacks, Juszcyk and Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard, ran times of 4.71 seconds and 5.03 in their 40-yard dashes.

Ratkovich’s 31 reps on the bench press exceeded Juszcyk’s by seven and fell short of Ricard’s by two. In terms of strength, a key trait of fullbacks who primarily serve as power runners and blockers, it’s clear that Ratkovich has the physicals to meet the needs of the position.

Fullback selections taking a dip

University of Michigan fullback Ben Mason was the latest player at his position to be selected in the draft. Mason was the only fullback taken in last year’s draft. The Ravens drafted Mason 184th overall with one of their compensatory picks in the fifth round.

The number of fullbacks taken in the draft has fallen in recent years. Four fullbacks were selected in the 2015 NFL Draft and three more in 2016. Only one fullback has been taken off the board in the past two years.

If a team or two decides to spend a pick on a fullback in this year’s draft, Ratkovich will have to compete with the likes of Jeremiah Hall from the University of Oklahoma and John Chenal from the University of Wisconsin for the opportunity to be an NFL draft selection.

What are the odds?

NIU has had seven players selected in the past ten drafts. San Francisco 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward was the highest player selected of those seven. The 49ers used the 30th overall pick in the first round to take Ward off the board. If Ratkovich is selected, he would be NIU’s 42nd draft pick in history barring any Huskies being taken earlier.

Ratkovich’s first opportunity to land on an NFL roster will be during the 2022 NFL Draft from April 28 to April 30. Teams will have seven rounds to make 262 selections to take draft-eligible players. Round one will be held on the 28th, and rounds two and three on the 29th. The draft will wrap up with its final four rounds on the 30th.

While it is nearly impossible to predict exactly which players each of the 32 teams will draft, two-thirds of teams utilize a fullback in their system. 21 teams currently have a designated fullback listed on their roster. One of those teams, the Las Vegas Raiders, has former NIU linebacker Sutton Smith under contract as a converted fullback.

Waiting for a shot

Ratkovich will likely remain close to home and settle with the Bears when all is said and done. Although the Bears recently brought in fullback Khari Blasingame as a free agent, teams bringing in competition for players is no new concept. This especially applies in the early stages of a new regime such as that of general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus. Chicago currently owns picks in the second, third, fifth, and sixth rounds in this year’s event.

The NFL hopeful has already shown once that he can perform at a higher level after upgrading from the lesser-known Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. He will now look to continue that trend as he looks ahead to a potential transition from a top dog in the Huskie backfield to a player in the pros.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes (to get on the field),” Ratkovich said in an interview with Jacob Infante of The Draft Wire. “Just the versatility I bring to the table, I feel like it’s something that can’t be matched. On the field, it’s always 100% for me. You’re never going to get any less.”

Regardless of whether he goes drafted or undrafted, Ratkovich has the ability to contribute to whichever team is willing to take a chance on him.