By Joseph Beyda
The Stanford offense has made a practice of retooling after the departures of all-time program greats — most notably, at quarterback in 2012 and at running back in 2013. This year it’s the fullbacks’ turn, as the Cardinal looks to fifth-year senior Lee Ward and senior Patrick Skov to replace three-year starter Ryan Hewitt at the position.
“We’ve got the same mentality every year, year in and year out,” Skov said. “We’ve had a history of good fullbacks, and nothing’s going to change.”
That is, except for Ward and Skov themselves.
In years past, Ward had been known as Stanford’s most physical fullback, out to knock back opposing linebackers and pave the way for the Cardinal’s power running game. He was used heavily in short-yardage and goal-line situations in 2013 and filled in for an injured Hewitt for the first two games of 2012.
If Ward was the sledgehammer on head coach David Shaw’s tool belt, Skov was the machete. Athletic, muscular and a skilled pass-catcher, Skov contributed on offense but shined primarily on special teams, demonstrating his violent abilities with a particularly booming hit on a Cal fake punt.
Yet neither fullback is satisfied with the status quo, and each has worked to become more of a Swiss army knife this offseason.
“I’m trying to diversify myself as a player and be versatile,” Ward said. “Whether it’s protecting the quarterback or catching the ball and running with the ball…[I’ve been] working on my weaknesses every day.”
“I like to pride myself on being able to do a lot of things and not being one-dimensional, bringing different facets to the game: catching the ball, running the ball, blocking of course…[and] helping protect the quarterback,” Skov said. “Just athletically, I think that I’ve put myself in a pretty good place where I can contribute in all of those facets.”
The duo will need to do just that if it wants to fill Hewitt’s shoes. “A tight end playing fullback,” as Shaw called him this week, Hewitt was a natural contributor in the passing game after his switch from tight end as a rising sophomore. In the years that followed, Hewitt developed into a capable run-blocker and earned the coaching staff’s trust as his knowledge and experience grew.
The coaching staff now has similar faith in Ward and Skov, and with three new fullbacks on the roster this season — freshman Daniel Marx and tight end converts junior Chris Harrell and fifth-year senior Eddie Plantaric — it can’t hurt to have two veterans in the position group to mentor the newcomers.
Ward is the presumptive starter because he was Hewitt’s primary backup last season, but that distinction should be only on paper. And though Shaw affirmed that both players could contribute in the passing game, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said that Ward wouldn’t likely run routes the way Hewitt had in previous years, so that niche, at the very least, is still Skov’s to lose.
The biggest takeaway? Given Ward’s substantial contributions to the running game last season and the fact that Skov has appeared in every game over the last two years, the Cardinal won’t be starting from scratch by any means.
“There were certain games where [Ward] was just unbelievable,” Shaw said. “I think Pat Skov has grown a lot as far as his comprehension. He’s a different athlete than Lee, I believe, so there’s different things we can do with both of them. But we have all the confidence in them right now to do everything in our offense.”
From their opposite ends of the fullback spectrum, the two roommates are converging on what they’ve been seeking so intently this offseason: all-around mastery of the position. The Cardinal isn’t retooling at fullback; instead, its technicians are reshuffling their tool belts. And at the end of the day, those fullbacks’ mission will stay the same.
“You’ve just got to have a mentality that you’re going to go in, do what you gotta do,” Skov said. “And block your ass off.”
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.
2014 Stanford Football Preview Series