Tuesday afternoon, the Wisconsin Badgers’ offense seemed to be rounding into shape. The shape, at least, expected as the end of spring practice approaches.
On the second play of the first-team scrimmage, quarterback Jon Budmayr dropped back, faked a handoff to running back James White and let rip a high-arching balloon of a toss down the left sideline. Budmayr — known especially for his strong arm — would go on to overthrow a few balls this practice, and this one was no different.
Yet, fullback Bradie Ewing kept pace with the ball, and just when it was within reach, he extended his left arm and hauled it in. The lefty, one-handed grab was the first of two impressive catches for Ewing Tuesday, and it was arguably the highlight of the entire practice.
Now a senior, Ewing has made just that kind of impression as a Badger. He’s consistently there, doing his job — he played in 38 of a possible 39 games his first three years — but he might not be noticed during the process. That, as the history of football has proven, is typically the life of a fullback. Line up in front of the tail back and behind the quarterback, make your blocks and don’t mess up. If the ball’s thrown to you, catch it.
Fortunately for the Badgers, Ewing has embraced the constantly ungrateful role.
“I just kind of accepted it,” Ewing said. “I kind of score my touchdowns now by having that nice block to spring that runner, something like that. I am a fullback and I have bought into it. I get my success from the team and scoring touchdowns as an offense, more than anything. Just trying to win games.”
Ewing has scored three touchdowns of his own — one on a one-yard run against Marshall in 2008, the second on a 7-yard run against Austin Peay last season and the third on a 3-yard reception later in that game. Yet, true to fullback form, Ewing’s most significant contributions stem from his blocking and his leadership.
Last year, Wisconsin’s offense was a wrecking ball, a force to be reckoned with — every cliché imaginable was thrown around, and appropriately so. The Badgers ran for 3,194 yards last year (12th in the nation) and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt (seventh in the nation). Their 48 rushing touchdowns were second in the nation, and two running backs (White and John Clay) each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Montee Ball, who missed one game, finished four yards shy with 996.
Much of the credit rightfully went to the dominant offensive line, the left half of which has since departed for the National Football League (tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt).
But no matter how much credit went elsewhere — or how little he received himself — the Badgers give Ewing everything he’s due.
“Just knowing that we could count on him,” Ball answered when asked what’s best about Ewing. “Our dive plays, running right behind him — us running backs knew that we could cut right inside of him just about every time because he was going to finish his block. Knowing that you’re running behind someone that’s going to finish their block every time gives you that edge over the defense.”
Ewing entered last season known as one of the nicest guys on a team and a dependable blocker. He left it with all those traits but also managed to build a mean streak and emerge as one of the unquestioned leaders on the team.
Perhaps most impressive, though, was Ewing’s ability to withstand a challenge from one of his best friends on the team. Early in the season, Ryan Groy, a reserve offensive lineman, supplanted him on the fullback depth chart. Groy started the season-opener at UNLV, and from that early point on, Ewing was pushed to improve.
“[Last year] was kind of up and down,” Ewing said. “I started off a little bit slow. They had Groy in there at fullback, and to be able to gain more confidence in myself, come out with a better mentality throughout the season and continue to work to get better, I was able to put myself in a position to help the offense toward the end of the season, the last half of the season. It was really rewarding, just be a part of that offense and part of the team’s success.”
To his credit, Ewing never outwardly admitted taking offense at Groy grabbing his spot. The two remained good friends, as Groy said they went hunting a few times during the season.
Still, Ewing recognized the challenge and adjusted his play accordingly. He developed a mean streak, eagerly seeking out defenders to block and finishing them off until the play ended. Occasionally, Ewing even took it farther.
“There was a part even last season where you’d see him going to look at knocking the other guy out or finishing another guy off,” Groy said. “It was a point where I think he might have got called for a few, but it was to the point where it was just relentless effort and just relentless toughness.”
Relentlessly indeed, Ewing morphed from a dependable blocker into a powerful, dependable force who never waited for opposing players to run into him. Rather, he ran into them, and the effect permeated Wisconsin’s offense attack.
“It’s real nice running behind Bradie,” Ball said. “If you just watch a game or something, he just goes until he hears a whistle. That’s phenomenal. I’ve never seen a player actually do that before, I honestly haven’t. I tip my cap to him, because that’s incredible. I love running behind him because I know he’s going to get the job done.”
As if running behind him wasn’t enough, the Badgers have come to rely on Ewing also as a pass-catcher. He’ll rarely be the first option on pass plays, but after not catching any passes his first two years, Ewing recorded eight for 82 yards and two touchdowns last season. One reception came in the Rose Bowl, where Ewing hauled in a pass from quarterback Scott Tolzien and ran 28 yards to Texas Christian University’s 1-yard line. On the next play, Clay hammered through the goal line and gave Wisconsin its first touchdown of the game.
The Badgers ended up falling to the Horned Frogs, but Ewing’s early reception served as a capstone to his evolutionary junior year. Now, Ewing prepares for 2011 not just as a fullback. Instead, he’s a fullback that can block, run, catch and lead. With UW’s offense losing Carimi, Moffitt, Tolzien, Clay and tight end Lance Kendricks to the NFL, that last trait very well could prove to be most impactful for Ewing.
“We’re workers, and we try to do our best to just pound people,” Ewing said. “Play after play, we’re going to bring it, and I think a fullback is a good position to start that off at. Hopefully, people are looking to me for that leadership, but I definitely got a long ways to go in the same account.”