Fullback Bradie Ewing has shown the impact he can have on a football game without the ball in his hands.
The University of Wisconsin football team’s offense set a slew of records last season, among them averaging 41.5 points per game and rushing for 48 touchdowns.
Ewing’s contributions appeared modest at first glance. He rushed three times for 19 yards, with a touchdown. He caught eight passes for 82 yards and two more scores.
The 101 total yards Ewing accounted for, on just 11 times handling the ball, were a footnote in the offense’s 5,787 total yards.
Yet, Ewing might have played his position as effectively as anyone on offense over the second half of the season.
As UW coach Bret Bielema said at the start of spring practices, “Bradie Ewing was playing about as good of football at the fullback position as I’ve witnessed, and I think he’s continued to make steps forward.”
One of the steps for Ewing going into his senior year could be to see the impact he can make with the football.
He showed what he’s capable of at a recent practice, running a wheel route out of the backfield and getting matched up with defensive end Louis Nzegwu on a zone blitz. Ewing got open deep down the left sideline and quarterback Jon Budmayr’s throw was just a bit long. But Ewing stuck out his left hand and made a sensational one-handed catch.
“I’ve got this cowboy collar on now, so my neck seems a little stiffer,” Ewing said of a neck roll he wears due to stinger problems earlier in the spring, which made it hard to get his head turned around. “I stuck my hand out and it stuck luckily.”
Ewing’s versatility should give coordinator Paul Chryst plenty of options as he reconfigures the offense.
Ultimately, fullbacks are in contention for playing time with tight ends and wide receivers. In recent seasons, Chryst has favored two tight ends as the base formation. Using three or more receivers can also cut into a fullback’s snaps.
Heading into the season, the Badgers have a lack of experienced depth at both tight end and receiver. The top two tight ends appear set with senior Jake Byrne and sophomore Jacob Pedersen. Once senior Nick Toon returns from foot surgery in the fall, he will team with sophomore Jared Abbrederis as the top receivers.
Both positions have almost no experience behind the top two, which is where Ewing comes in.
“I think Coach (Chryst) wants to get the ball in my hands, hopefully, whether that’s splitting me out or running routes out of the backfield,” Ewing said. “Just doing some different things to open up the offense a little more. It just makes the whole offense better.”
Chryst loves versatile players, and a 234-pound fullback such as Ewing, who can block and catch, opens a variety of possibilities. Having a fullback in the game usually signifies a running play, until Chryst decides to split Ewing out wide.
Even if Ewing never touches the ball out there, he helps spread the defense and open up running lanes. He can also be a tough matchup in the passing game, capable of running past linebackers often assigned to cover him.
Whether or not he touches the ball more this season, Ewing’s role will expand as one of the leaders on offense. He has been part of the team’s Badger Council all four years. Each position elects two players, who meet regularly with Bielema and have input on team decisions.
“(Bielema) always says it’s not necessarily the best players, but it’s people that represent the program and what we do right here,” Ewing said of the honor.
Ewing’s career has flown by, in part because he played as a true freshman, contributing on special teams. He is set to graduate next spring, getting his sociology degree in four years.
With a strong final year, the former walk-on from Richland Center could get a chance to play in the NFL, too.
But that’s all down the road. Whether or not he gets to touch the football more, Ewing will continue to impact games in whatever ways he can.
“It’s always rewarding when you’re blocking and you feel the tailback go right off your tail end,” he said. “I always say, that’s kind of like my touchdowns. That makes me feel good and I feel like I played an integral part in that play.”