Stanford football’s “Mr. Do Everything” is going to have to do even more this season.
Redshirt junior fullback Ryan Hewitt more than earned that label from head coach David Shaw in 2011. He blocked dominantly for the one of the nation’s top 20 rushing attacks, pounded the ball forward in short-yardage situations and averaged three receptions a game out of the backfield.
Despite the exodus of four top offensive players to the NFL, the Cardinal’s offensive scheme has remained mostly intact—but all the small changes will fall squarely in Hewitt’s lap. Without Luck’s passing talent to buoy the offense, Hewitt’s run blocking will be in higher demand; without departed running backs Jeremy Stewart and Tyler Gaffney, Hewitt is likely to pick up a few more carries; and without another game-tested player to fill Coby Fleener’s slot in the Cardinal’s triple-tight-end formations, Hewitt could be called on to catch even more passes.
Shaw may have to limit his go-to guy more than in the past to keep him healthy.
“We’ve got a great rotation there,” he said. “Ryan absolutely hates it because he hates coming off the field. He wants to take every rep in practice. He gets mad when we pull him out, but we have to preserve him to a certain degree.”
“We’re one of the few teams in college football that has three fullbacks,” Shaw added.
Besides helmet-popping junior Geoff Meinken, who is not practicing due to injury, the Cardinal will benefit from redshirt sophomore Lee Ward, who played in eight games last season, and talented redshirt freshman Patrick Skov.
“All the fullbacks have their specialties,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt’s specialty is his pass-catching ability. A tight end in high school, he was third on the team in touchdowns with five last year, many of his receptions coming on the infamous “Spider 3 Y Banana” play featured in Jon Gruden’s QB Camp session with Luck on ESPN.
“A lot of the times we call those on third downs, third-and-shorts or fourth downs, and they’re crucial situations when you need to convert,” Hewitt said. “So I just do my best, if I’m open, to catch the rock and get upfield.”
Those receptions, however, add to the heavy physical strain already placed on a fullback, making the contributions from Meinken, Ward and Skov—an abundance of wealth at a position that has declined in college with the rise of spread-option offenses—all the more important for this season. The slot has paid enormous dividends for Stanford’s pro-style scheme in recent years, starting with current Cleveland Browns fullback Owen Marecic, who paved the way for Toby Gerhart’s Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign in 2009.
Like the pass-catching Hewitt, Marecic was a workhorse, doubling as a linebacker his senior year to garner several Heisman votes and earn the national Paul Hornung Award for his versatility. It’s a trait that Hewitt has also worked to embody, albeit entirely on the offensive side of the ball.
“The more versatile you are, the more you can play, and the more slots you fit in,” Hewitt said. “I had a pretty good pedigree for catching the ball…It’s helped me play and it helped me have a good year last year.”
His transition at fullback went as well as hoped for in 2011. Stanford’s run production stayed steady (dipping from 2,779 to 2,738 yards), and Hewitt’s 317 all-purpose yards nearly doubled Marecic’s total (160) from the year before. Even Hewitt’s curly yellow hair seems to continue, if not one-up, his predecessor’s work; Marecic sported his own distinctive mane until he joined the Browns.
“It’ll be here for the season, that’s a guarantee,” Hewitt said of his own hair. “We’ll see about after though.”
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series:
Aug. 2: For outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, reward for hard work is finally in sight