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Jets’ Nick Bawden went from tossing passes to throwing blocks in college switch to fullback

By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Pro Football Writer

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Nick Bawden had dreams as a youngster of being a big league pitcher. Too many curveballs later, his right arm caused him to call an audible.

He went from the mound to the huddle, switching to football and playing quarterback.

“My elbow was shot, but I could throw a football with no issues,” the New York Jets fullback recalled.

And Bawden was good enough at it during a standout career at Los Gatos High School in Northern California that he drew interest from several Division I schools before choosing to play at San Diego State.

He saw action as a freshman in 2014 because of an injury to starter Quinn Kaehler, but was shaky while starting two games.

“I kind of got thrown into the fire a bit,” Bawden said.

Bawden found himself buried on the depth chart the next year with the emergence of other players and transfers. Bob Toledo, the offensive coordinator on coach Rocky Long’s staff when Bawden came to San Diego State, retired and was replaced by Jeff Horton. The Aztecs’ offensive system changed from a West Coast-style to a pro-style scheme and Bawden suddenly faced a difficult decision.

He was told he could transfer to another school or stay at San Diego State — but had to change his position.

“I was like, ‘What position do you want me to play?’” the 6-foot-2 Bawden said. “I had only ever played quarterback in my life and they said, ‘Well, you’re not fast enough to play running back and you’re not tall enough to play tight end. You know the offense really well, so we want you to try fullback.’”

Bawden huddled with his parents and considered his options. He also leaned on his faith.

He decided to stay and make the rarely seen move from quarterback to fullback. And it was far from an easy transition.

“My whole sophomore year, I was a backup and just hated it,” Bawden said. “I was getting blasted and not figuring out how to strike people. I really was thinking about hanging it up after that year.”

Starter Dakota Gordon helped him learn fullback fundamentals. Horton, who was also the running backs coach, provided Bawden with some motivation.

“He said, ‘Listen, we need you to step up next year,’” Bawden recalled. “That gave me a new set of thoughts where I was like, ‘All right, maybe I’m not done with this after all.'”

Bawden focused on his nutrition, improved his sleeping habits and added some weight and muscle.

Over the next two years, he developed into one of the country’s top run blockers while helping pave the way for Donnel Pumphrey — the career leader in yards rushing in NCAA Division I FBS history — and current Eagles running back Rashaad Penny.

“I really just started to fall in love with the game, like, in a whole new way,” Bawden said. “It was crazy how it all went down.”

By the time he was done at San Diego State, Bawden was an NFL prospect and was drafted in the seventh round by Detroit in 2018.

No longer tossing passes, Bawden was throwing bone-crunching blocks as a pro.

“There’s nothing like the feeling of opening up a hole and feeling the running back go behind you,” said Bawden, who has five career catches for two TDs in the NFL. “That gets me more fired up than throwing touchdowns used to be.”

Fullbacks were once featured in offenses, but have gradually been phased out to where many teams don’t carry one. That’s because of a change in the style of offenses and using a tight end or offensive lineman in an H-back role when needing an extra blocker.

But some offensive coordinators still value fullbacks. And Bawden, in his third season with the Jets after three with the Lions, has a chance to stick in New York after he missed last season with a core muscle injury.

“Nick is one of those versatile athletes — unbelievable on special teams, adds an entirely different dimension to the offense, which has kind of gone away,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said.

Nathaniel Hackett has often used fullbacks during his stops in the NFL, including Andrew Beck in Denver last year and Danny Vitale in Green Bay and Tommy Bohanon in Jacksonville.

Bawden has been active as a blocker and pass-catching option out of the backfield in the Jets’ Aaron Rodgers-led offense early in camp this summer.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s run blocking, catching, pass blocking — my role is however they want to make it,” Bawden said. “And I’m just here to show that I can do different things for the offense.”

NOTES: The Jets signed LBs Nick Vigil and Sam Eguavoen and released LBs Hamsah Nasirildeen and LB Maalik Hall. … DE Carl Lawson sat out with what Saleh said is back tightness. … DE Jermaine Johnson, LG Laken Tomlinson and LB Quincy Williams left practice with undisclosed injuries, but Saleh wasn’t concerned about them. … CB Bryce Hall has a minor hamstring injury.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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