Ron Dayne was one of the most talented college athletes to ever step foot on a football field.
Though, even as he embarked upon his first season in the Wisconsin Cardinal and White that would culminate with an All-American selection, his freshman year began with uncertainty.
He was adjusting to a completely new offense, and there was nowhere to hide to learn the ropes — he was to be the prized feature of Coach Barry Alvarez’ ground and pound offense.
Coming out of the huddle, Dayne had some early issues knowing which gaps to hit — or even which direction to take the handoff. Thankfully, he had fullback Cecil Martin to rely on.
Exemplifying the cliche about things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, Martin, who would line up in front of Dayne in many of the Badgers offensive sets, would stick his hand between his legs and signal to Dayne with his fingers which way he was to run. Then after the snap, Martin would take off, hitting his own marked man and aiding Dayne as he rushed his way to a 2,109 yard, 21 touchdown freshman season.
I don’t know if there is a game that goes by at Camp Randall without some sort of Dayne highlight or honor.
You can’t say the same of Cecil Martin.
Football is a game of stereotypes.
There’s the flashy receiver, unyielding in his never-ending quest to juke defenders out of their cleats or make highlight-reel catches — the cocky cornerback, trash-talking perpetually and exuding a prideful swagger matched by few, as well as the juiced-up strength and conditioning coach, whose emphasis is quite obviously on strength rather than conditioning.
Fullbacks, despite (or maybe because of) their understated nature in most offensive schemes, are the blue-collar workhorse — doing what needs to be done in whatever capacity they are best suited.
“You gotta be a gritty player to play fullback,” former Badger and current San Diego Chargers fullback Derek Watt said. “It’s not typically a glorious position.”
Calling fullback “not typically a glorious position” is a bit like saying late-season games at Camp Randall aren’t usually balmy.
The fullback is the ugly duckling of the football field. Nobody knows whether to associate them with the lineman, the backs or the receivers.
Yet, it’s easy to romanticize the mentality of the workman-like, do-your-job fullback. Some of it could stem from all of their shared origins. Nobody is born a fullback these days and most who became great ones didn’t even play the position in high school.
Current Badgers fullback Alec Ingold was a standout quarterback in high school and even had an offer to play at Northern Illinois State. Instead, he turned it down and came to University of Wisconsin as a running back, soon making the switch that so many others before him like Watt have made to fullback.
Usually, those that are good enough to play fullback at the college level were the most athletic guys on their high school teams and were therefore placed in a more ball-dominant role, most often running back.
“[Former Head Coach Bret Bielema] asked me to come over and ‘hit that guy on this play’. It wasn’t like we had meetings or anything. I just went over and did it and he said ‘alright we can work with that.’”Derek Watt
But upon arrival on campus, those skills are transferred into the fullback position for various reasons.
“If you’re Alec Ingold, you’re also a state championship caliber wrestler in high school, a big, strong guy who maybe couldn’t throw it strong enough at the college level,” longtime radio voice of the Badgers Matt Lepay said. “But he can hit people, he can block, he has good hands and can run the ball.”
Watt’s story echoes much of the same.
He was a highly-touted linebacker and running back recruit coming into college and soon after he came to Madison he was converted.
“[Former Head Coach Bret Bielema] asked me to come over and ‘hit that guy on this play,’” Watt explained. “It wasn’t like we had meetings or anything. I just went over and did it and he said ‘alright we can work with that.’”
The lack of high school players forces college teams intent on utilizing a fullback to become creative.
Former Badger fullback and assistant strength and conditioning coach Bradie Ewing said that it’s incredibly difficult to recruit with the sole intent of placing the player at fullback and a lot of those that end up there do so thanks to pure chance.
“If you look at myself, we had a fullback leave the program when I was a running back,” Ewing said. “Mickey Turner was playing a fullback-tight end role at the time, and it gave me the opportunity to develop under him.”
He also stressed the importance of having a role model like Turner to watch and learn from. It’s rare for a fullback to have a perfect mentor because as time has gone on they have become rarer and rarer.
For many offensive schemes across varying levels of football, the position has been all but relegated to little more than a more mobile auxiliary offensive lineman.
“The fullback is a dying breed,” Ewing said. “It’s become something that is unique to a few professional teams and a few college teams.”
One of those few teams is Wisconsin, who’ve become one of the last safe havens for fullbacks who are battling to stay off of the endangered species list.
From Martin to Ewing to Watt and now Ingold, it’s become more than just a coincidence that fullbacks have thrived at Camp Randall.
“It’s a tradition that they’re pretty proud of,” Lepay said. “They don’t apologize for it. They’ve been blessed through the years to have a lot of great fullbacks over the years.”
This lineage is almost impossible to ignore.
There seems to be a theme of solidarity among fullbacks, who have formed somewhat of a fraternity as a result of their shared experiences in the unique role, keeping tabs on their peers and feeling a vicarious sense of gratification when they see one of their own make a big play.
“We’re all wired pretty similarly,” Ewing said. “It’s cool having been in that position, knowing those that have come before me and have come after.”
And fans have begun to really take to the comparably significant role the position holds in the offense.
There have been “Fullback-U” and “Fullback City” T-shirts printed in their honor.
“Wisconsin definitely celebrates it more than most places,” Ewing noted.
Simply a trip up to the press box during a game in Madison can shed plenty of light on its popularity. There is seldom a third-and-short that goes by that excited murmurs about a fullback dive cannot be overheard from journalists neglecting to preserve their supposed impartiality, instead rooting in low tones for each first down picked up by Ingold.
They have good reason. It’s rare in the whole of sports for a team to be able to run a play the way the Badgers run the fullback dive. The other team almost surely knows what’s coming, and the Badgers are more often than not completely derelict in any presumed duty to throw them off the scent.
Yet it works time and time again.
“A lot of times, in general, the defense can know what play we can be running but we take it upon ourselves to be more prepared, more physical so we can win that play with them knowing what we have coming,” Ewing said
There’s also an element of the strategy that no-doubt lies beyond its success on the field, but also in the mind of the opponent.
It is humiliating for a defense to know what’s coming and be powerless to stop it. Being able to capitalize on a gut-punch like that will always give the Badgers an edge.
“You wanna prove you’re tougher than your opponent, and that’s a great way to do it,” Lepay said.
Twelve games into the 2018 season, Ingold is averaging a touchdown on slightly more than every four touches.
Lepay credits some of Ingold’s success in particular to his wrestling background.
“If you’re a wrestler you understand leverage and Alec gets that,” Lepay said. “If you need two yards, he’ll get you three or four.”
But the success didn’t begin with Ingold, and I would be willing to wager that it won’t end with him either.
Some of it must come from the myriad running threats the Badgers boast, particularly this season. They have arguably the best running back in the nation in Jonathan Taylor, a top-end power back in Taiwan Deal, a pleasantly productive Garrett Groshek as well as the option to use receivers like Danny Davis or Kendric Pryor for positive yardage in jet sweeps.
“[Wisconsin fullbacks] would be the first to say that the incredibly gifted, talented running backs we have had contribute to the tradition and it all kind of snowballs and perpetuates itself,” Ewing said. “When you have weapons, when you have options out there — it’s only going to improve your opportunities.”
Though the defense may know Ingold is getting the ball up the middle in some situations, they still must respect the talent surrounding him.
While at Wisconsin the fullback cult is growing, elsewhere many are far more oblivious to the Badger’s quest to save the fullback.
“People think a fullback from Wisconsin can’t jump over a phone book.”Matt Lepay
It’s not at all uncommon to hear slanderous language with regard to the protagonists of our story. Many see the big guy in the backfield and immediately leap to maligned assertions that they must not be athletic, or that the position has no place in today’s game.
Lepay thinks this comes from the multiple uses for the players, so they aren’t thought of as excellent in a specific area.
“A lot of it is not very sexy,” Lepay said.“But it doesn’t mean that you can’t carry the ball or touch the ball out of the backfield.”
The position has seen plenty of evolution and faced many threats over the years. Originally they were trusted with kicking duties — which is why the penalty “running into the kicker” was deemed “running into the fullback.” Then the kicker became its own specialized position and the fullback was assigned to run the ball along with the halfback, who eventually usurped their job as well, resulting in the tasks we know today that mainly focuses on run blocking. This is partially why the bond is so strong — if they don’t stick up for one another, nobody will.
Last year’s Orange Bowl was as close to football heaven as it gets for the fullback community. It should really be honored as a holiday of sorts. I have faith that years from now fullbacks everywhere will gather around their shrine to Jim Brown and Mike Tolbert to commemorate the day Austin Ramesh changed the world.
Dec. 30, 2017 at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami was the backdrop to an event of biblical proportions.
Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook dropped back to pass in the midst of the second quarter. Looking right, he hits Ramesh on a flat route.
A Miami defender settles in a yard before the first-down marker, awaiting a chance to tackle the fleet-footed fullback.
Much to the surprise of everyone, Ramesh did the unthinkable, leaping over the defender and gaining the new set of downs.
It was the fullback equivalent of the moon landing: “One small step for a fullback, one giant leap for fullback kind.”
“It shocks people,” Lepay said of the hurdle heard ‘round the world. “People think a fullback from Wisconsin can’t jump over a phone book.”
There really is no way to classify the fullback in a grouping. They’re the Swiss Army knife. The jack-of-all-trades. They’re fullbacks, there just isn’t any other way to put it.
“If you think of one position that is just football in general, you think of fullback,” Ewing said. “Though, I’m a little biased.”