By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Ryan Hewitt, Stanford's bruising 6-foot-4, 245-pound redshirt sophomore fullback, was recruited as a tight end, and a pretty darn good one at that, ranked as high as 30th in the nation.
Hewitt never made it past his freshman spring camp. Then-coach Jim Harbaugh asked if he would consider taking some reps at fullback. Turns out Hewitt is a good fit in the backfield, though he still maintains some connection with the tight ends.
"Yeah, I still consider myself an honorary tight end," Hewitt said. "If they're out running routes I'll join them."
Luckily, the Cardinal is deep enough at tight end it can spare one of its parts elsewhere in the offense. There are no plans in the works for him to become a two-way player though, ala Owen Marecic (now with the Cleveland Browns), the man he replaced.
Hewitt will be in the middle of things when seventh-ranked Stanford (3-0, 5-0) travels to Washington State for its Pac-12 Conference contest Saturday that begins at 4:30 p.m. (Versus).
The closest Hewitt has ever come to playing linebacker is rooming with Stanford's Shayne Skov, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
"Maybe Shayne can teach me the ropes," Hewitt said.
Again, thanks to depth at the position, Hewitt can concentrate on one role, though there are plays designed specifically to take advantage of his receiving skills.
"Every good West Coast offense has one," Stanford coach David Shaw said of the fullback position. "We had expectations for him and he's surpassed our expectations. He can run routes like a wide receiver, carry the ball on short-yardage, third-down plays and he's a solid blocker."
Hewitt's production extends far beyond his six rushes for 20 yards and 15 pass receptions for 143 yards and three touchdowns. Like Marecic, Hewitt blocks like he wants to knock everything down in his path.
"Owen taught me how to block, how to play," Hewitt said. "When I first moved I didn't know anything. I didn't know where to stand, where to go, what to do. He was a great teacher and I had to be a good student."
His biggest value may be in short yard situations. Shaw compared him to NFL running back Zach Crockett, who he coached with the Oakland Raiders. Crockett was a short-yardage specialist with a knack to score.
Shaw similarly uses Hewitt, though not as often in the red zone. Hewitt is the first-down maker. Of the 21 times he's touched the ball via run and pass, he has scored three times and gained 14 first downs. That keeps drives alive, helps run out the clock in the fourth quarter and produces confidence in the entire offense.
Hewitt, a Denver native, had his best game yet in Stanford's 48-7 victory over Colorado on Saturday. He caught four passes for 28 yards and two touchdowns. His fellow fullback, Geoff Meinken, added a three-yard carry that produced one of the harder hits of the season, knocking the helmet of a Colorado linebacker trying to make the tackle.
"I was excited to see him run over a linebacker," Stanford's Ben Gardner said of Meinken. "It's not a job I'd want. He brings 265 pounds to the party and brings in low and hard."
Stanford's defense will be facing its biggest challenge of the season against a potent Cougars' offense that ranks third in the Pac-12 behind only Oregon and Stanford. Washington State (1-1, 3-2) averages 40.6 points and 492.6 yards a game.
The Cardinal leads the conference in scoring defense (10.6 ppg), rushing defense (61.8 ypg) and total defense (302.4 ypg).
"Their offense is very well-orchestrated," Shaw said. "They are playing much better than they did a year ago and you can see a rhythm."
Cougars' sophomore receiver Marquise Wilson ranks fourth in the conference with 31 receptions and third in receiving yards (seventh in the nation) with an average of 127.6.
Stanford has yet to face a receiver of his quality. In 17 games with Washington State he has caught six touchdowns of 50 yards or more.
"The guy just makes plays," Shaw said. "He's good in man coverage and he finds the seams in zone coverage."
Senior Marshall Lobbestael assumed full-time quarterback duties for the Cougars when Jeff Tuel was knocked out if action after throwing two passes in the season-opener. Lobbestael actually started that game because Tuel suffered a stomach virus.
Tuel has been cleared to play this week, although reports out of Pullman indicate Lobbestael will start, with a small chance Tuel will see action.
The Cougars felt confident of reaching a bowl game with Tuel at the reigns and Lobbestael has been producing thus far.
"They have a solid receiving corps and a quarterback who is capable," Stanford defensive back Johnson Bademosi said. "It's another challenge for us."
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck ranks first in the Pac-12 and third in the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 182.33.
"When you watch film you wonder, mathematically, how he throws some of the balls he does where only the receiver can catch it," Shaw said. "He's one of the few guys on the planet who could do it."
Luck made his college debut against the Cougars and remembers not sleeping much the night before.
"I do remember that touchdown pass to Chris (Owusu)," he said. "That's a good memory."