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Undrafted throwback Lee Ward has a chance to make Carolina Panthers

For the Carolina Panthers, undrafted rookie Lee Ward, left, and veteran Mike Tolbert, right, are the only fullbacks on the roster. That means Ward has to carry Tolbert’s helmet, for now.
For the Carolina Panthers, undrafted rookie Lee Ward, left, and veteran Mike Tolbert, right, are the only fullbacks on the roster. That means Ward has to carry Tolbert’s helmet, for now. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Lee Ward, an undrafted rookie out of Stanford, reported to the Carolina Panthers last month as a tryout player. If he didn’t impress the team in rookie mini-camp, he was out.

His position soon could be, too. Ward plays fullback. When was the last time you heard about a fullback being selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft? Until the past two sentences, when was the last time you heard about a fullback?

A fullback is to football what a typewriter is to writing.

“Everybody has fallen in love with the passing game,” Ward, 23, says Thursday after the week’s final practice of Organized Team Activities. “The reason is the spread offense, especially in college. Personally I don’t think it’s the same game. But there are a lot of teams in the NFL that still use a traditional fullback, especially teams that run the ball a lot like the Panthers. So I think I have a great opportunity here.”

Even when Ward, 5-11 and 246 pounds, stands on the side of the practice field, he appears to be looking for somebody to block. That’s the fullback’s job. Do it right, and Carolina’s running backs can safely follow.

Ward once followed the blocks of others. As a senior at Chesterfield, Mo., Parkway Central he rushed for 1,415 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also was twice all-state at linebacker. Some Ivy League schools would have allowed him to play tailback as well as fullback. At Stanford, he was a fullback.

Didn’t you want to run?

“I mean, who doesn’t?” Ward asks. “But I’ll gladly block for the more athletic guys on our roster, and I think I did a great job of it.”

Last season Ward, a Stanford captain and special teams star, caught two passes for 5 yards. One was a 3-yard touchdown reception. He rushed once all season, for 11 yards.

Think about this. Every other pass Ward caught was good for a touchdown, and he averaged 11 yards a carry. The only player on Carolina’s roster last season to surpass 11 yards a carry was Corey Brown, who averaged 11.9, and he’s a receiver.

For Panthers fans who might not be familiar with Ward’s running style, which is to say all Panthers fans, how would he describe it?

“I’m the kind of runner that breaks tackles and drags people,” he says. “I’m kind of a road grader.”

As Ward and I talk, Carolina coach Ron Rivera walks past and says, “I see you, I see you.”

Rivera knows I like underdogs. I remind him that Ward is his responsibility. Rivera told me to look for him at rookie camp. What would I see?

“When you watch a real fullback, they just have a look,” Rivera says. “They look tenacious. (Carolina fullback) Mike Tolbert has a little bit of that and I played (in Chicago) with Matt Suhey, who had it. (Ward) is a good kid. I like who he is and he’s got a chance.”

Says Rivera: “I sat down with John Madden this year and one of the things we talked about was how the old time fullbacks and blocking tight ends are a thing of the past. It’s hard to find guys that do those things. I want to see this kid in pads because when you put on the tape you see a tough, physical player – a throwback.”

But he’s a throwback to another era. He’s a typewriter. Can you envision fullbacks being phased out?

“No,” says Rivera. “We don’t use them as much as we once did. But what’s going to happen when you get down to the red zone and you have one back? You need somebody, whether it’s a prototypical fullback or a 300-pound offensive lineman or defensive lineman.”

Ward and Tolbert are the only full-time fullbacks on the 90-man roster. This means Ward the rookie has to carry the helmet of Tolbert the veteran when they leave the field. Ward laughingly tries to get Tolbert to carry his own helmet. Tolbert smiles and walks away.

“He’s a great guy,” says Ward. “He’s smart and he knows all the running back plays and all the fullback plays. I get to come out every day and learn from him. He’s a really impressive guy to follow.”

Ward will know he’s an NFL fullback when running backs follow him.       

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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