EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings needed to get out of their own territory, and they looked to C.J. Ham to help them advance.
On second-and-8 from his own 5, Kirk Cousins faked a handoff to running back Latavius Murray and instead wound up from inside the end zone and connected with Ham, who made the catch just ahead of Rasheed Green before getting forced out of bounds on the left sideline by Green and K.J. Wright.
Ham’s 10-yard catch gave Minnesota some much-needed breathing room and set in motion a 97-yard drive – including another play by Ham for 16 yards – that ended with a 1-yard touchdown by Murray.
It’s not uncommon for fullbacks to be in on plays near the end zone … when it’s at the other end. But Ham’s versatility has enabled the Vikings to utilize him in more roles than one.
“Kirk has told me that he really likes having me in there in some of those situations, so I take pride in that,” Ham said. “If Kirk likes me in there, I want to make sure I’m doing the right things when I’m in there with him. Coming from a running back background, being able to catch the ball, I think it just adds value to my position.”
Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo was asked about Ham’s first catch against the Seahawks in the teams’ third preseason game, and he emphasized the significant impact it had on getting Minnesota moving down the field.
“Whenever you have more guys of different skill sets, that’s a good thing,” DeFilippo said. “Keeping his balance and catching the football and making a guy miss, that was an impressive play, and that was a huge play for us at that time.”
According to DeFilippo, though, this is nothing new for the Duluth native.
“He’s being doing that stuff,” DeFilippo said. “Somebody asked me other day if it’s been surprising me that’s he’s played as well as he has, and I said no. He’s been doing that since we’ve been here. So, really pleased with C.J.”
Ham joined the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and spent the majority of that season on the practice squad as a running back. Prior to last season, he was asked to make the move to fullback, which he embraced.
When asked how he’s improved heading into his second season at the position, Ham immediately responded that his overall knowledge of the game is much stronger.
“I feel like this year I’ve been able to dissect defenses and coverages and fronts a lot better than I did last year,” Ham said. “[Running backs coach Kennedy] Polamalu’s done a great job of helping me out in that sense, and I feel like I’ve gotten stronger in that part – and it’s making the game come to me easier.”
While Ham and DeFilippo didn’t work together in 2017, the coordinator concurs that Ham has the playbook down.
DeFilippo told media members that Ham is “one of the most diligent” player he’s coached. He said that on top of being smart and athletic, Ham takes pride in doing his job well.
Even when DeFilippo intentionally tries to stump Ham, he’s ready.
“I kind of try and surprise him each day on the script, putting him somewhere else and seeing if I can catch him without him preparing, and I never do,” DeFilippo explained. “He always comes up and asks, ‘Hey, how do you want this? How do you want this?’
“He can do a lot of things and lot of things well. Not only obviously playing fullback, but from a team standpoint on our special teams,” DeFilippo continued. “He’s a guy we’re continuing to watch grow and have a role in this offense. I’ve been very, very, very impressed with C.J.”
Hearing DeFilippo’s anecdote recounted to him following Tuesday morning’s practice session, Ham flashed a smile.
“It’s kind of humbling to know that he’s trying to throw a little wrinkle in there, and I’m still able to get it,” Ham said.
He then paid credit to Polamalu for continuously stressing that the fullback needs to know “everything.”
“You need to know the formations, you need to know the blocking schemes,” Ham said. “It just makes the game so much easier from a running back standpoint, a fullback standpoint, so just being in the playbook is something I pride myself in, and I have to continue to impress.”
In addition to team and position group meetings, as well as install periods of practice, Ham makes sure to dive into the playbook by himself every evening.
“[I’m] looking at what’s coming tomorrow and making sure I know where I’m exactly supposed to be position-wise, depth-wise, all of those things – to an exact ‘T.’ Coach Flip is very particular about how he wants things done, and I want to make sure I’m doing my job and doing it as well as I can for him,” Ham said.
When the Vikings hired DeFilippo in February, coming off a Super Bowl LII championship as the Eagles quarterbacks coach, Ham felt a little nervous. He had worked under Pat Shurmur during the 2017 season, and when Shurmur accepted the head coaching job with the Giants, Ham wondered how the Vikings offense would change.
He said it was initially difficult not knowing what to expect or if the system would involve a fullback. But when he got to know DeFilippo and his plans for the offense, Ham understood that he would have an opportunity to continue demonstrating his versatility.
“From day one, he says we’re going to be a two-back offense,” Ham said. “His system is very complex, there’s a lot of different words, a lot of different motions, but I feel like I’ve done a good job of staying in playbook and making sure I know what I’m supposed to do.”
At home, Ham enjoys spending time with his wife, Stephanie, and playing his young daughter, Skylar. But on the football field, he’s all business.
And while his mentality changes a bit on the gridiron, the approach also has a family connection.
“My dad didn’t play sports, but he’s always worked extremely hard at anything he’s ever done, so when I’m out on the field it’s all about just working hard,” Ham said. “It’s on the field, get your job done, work hard. And then when I’m at home with my family, I get to kind of let all that go and just be free.”