TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- You’d have been forgiven for checking what year it was.
A burly fullback catches a pass and turns upfield. He lowers his pads—neckroll and all—and powers through a linebacker for a big gain.
2019? Nah, has to be 1989, right?
It was a throwback moment in the modern game, and that play from last December’s Sun Bowl also gave a sneak peek at the future of the Arizona State offense.
* * *
It had been a rough season for the Sun Devils' running game.
A number of factors—chiefly inconsistent offensive line play and defenses loading the box to stop star running back Eno Benjamin—had kept ASU from producing the type of results that they had in 2018. So late in the season, ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens approached true freshman walk-on linebacker Case Hatch with a proposition.
“We need a fullback,” Likens said. “Are you interested in doing it?”
“I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” Hatch replied.
The idea had been on Likens’ mind for some time. In fact, Likens mentioned Hatch as a fullback candidate during my sitdown podcast with him in the June prior to the season. Now, he was putting the idea into action.
After starring at Perry High School in Gilbert, Hatch paused his college football aspirations to embark on a two-year LDS mission. While serving his faith in Florida, his love of football drove him to maintain his physical conditioning so he could avoid the reacclimation period many college players face when returning from their missions.
“When I was out of it for the two years, I wanted to be back in so bad,” Hatch said. “I just wanted to be ready for the opportunity. I was missing it so much from high school that I didn’t want anything to slip up when the opportunity presented itself.”
With about two months left in his mission, Arizona State reached out to Hatch to see if he’d want to join the program. A few weeks later, Hatch made the decision to become a Sun Devil.
After arriving on campus, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Hatch impressed the coaching staff during spring and fall camps. That earned him playing time on special teams and as a reserve linebacker before the late-season switch to fullback.
Hatch embraced the new challenge. Sure, he was switching sides of the ball, but the fundamental goal was the same: smack 'em hard.
“Going from linebacker to fullback, instead of the guys running away from me, now they’re running to me,” Hatch said, “and all I got to do is hit 'em.”
He had played some running back in high school, and he also studied film of NFL fullbacks like Kyle Juszczyk. Hatch also was able to flip the script from his experience on defense to his advantage.
“I can anticipate what the linebackers are going to do before the snap, so I can set myself up for the right block,” Hatch said.
He was learning the job on the fly, but his raw talent was evident on a number of key blocks, such as on Benjamin’s touchdown run late in the third quarter to seal the victory over Arizona.
"He transitioned very well," said ASU running backs coach Shaun Aguano. "Good athlete with the right mentality and the right maturity."
When he wasn't clearing paths for Benjamin, Hatch excelled on special teams. He would go on to earn All-Pac-12 first team recognition as an all-purpose special teamer.
“I did not expect that to happen," said Hatch. "My big thing was always to look for a way to progress, to be better. Every game, I would go through film and see how I could have gone quicker down the field, how could I have made the tackle. All that built up on itself. I did not expect it to happen, but when I got it, it was amazing.”
The honors didn't stop there. During a team meeting on Christmas Eve, head coach Herm Edwards awarded a full scholarship to Hatch—who accepted it while wearing a "Make Fullbacks Great Again" hat.
A week later during ASU's Sun Bowl matchup against Florida State, Hatch rewarded Edwards' faith by showing off what he could do with the ball in his hands.
After a stagnant first quarter, the Sun Devils opened the second with a pass to Hatch in the flat. In perfect fullback form, he ran through the tackle attempt of FSU linebacker Kalen DeLoach and picked up 26 yards.
“That was awesome,” said Hatch of the play. “I didn’t really expect that to happen, but I always told myself that if I had an opportunity to get the ball, that I was going to take it, and no one was going to take me down.”
The catch-and-run provided a nice early-game highlight, and a couple of hours later, Hatch got to cap the Sun Devils’ victory by dousing Edwards with a cooler full of Frosted Flakes.
Not a bad way to end his first year as a Sun Devil.
Heading into the 2020 season, Arizona State is installing a different scheme under new offensive coordinator Zak Hill. Fortunately for Hatch, it's one that is built around a downhill running game, and it prominently features a fullback.
As he prepares for this key role, Hatch has one of the position’s all-time greats to mentor him.
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It started on Instagram.
Mike Karney was scrolling through the app when he happened upon a post from Case Hatch, who had just made the move over to fullback.
In light of that news, Karney left a comment on Hatch’s post that included a prompt: “Get at me.”
Of course, this wasn’t just any random comment on the ‘Gram.
During his ASU career from 2000 through 2003, Karney became one of the nation’s best and most physical fullbacks. He then went on to a seven-year NFL career, during which he made two Pro Bowls and was a second-team All-Pro in 2006.
So yeah, if you’re an aspiring fullback and Karney reaches out, you respond. Hatch did, setting in motion a relationship built on smashing defenders in the face.
Over the latter part of the 2019 season, the two communicated frequently via direct messages on Instagram. Karney sent over clips of his old game film. Hatch asked questions about the proper steps, reads, and positioning, and Karney provided his expertise on the finer points of the position.
Never pass color to get to color.
We hit whatever we see moving.
Read through the D-line to the second level.
Same foot, same shoulder.
Along with the technical aspects, Karney has kept a focus on the mental demands of playing fullback.
“More importantly for me, it’s letting him know the mindset of the position,” Karney said. “It’s not something where you just get in there and cover guys up. We want to try and devastate guys. We want to take guys’ souls.”
Helping the next generation of Sun Devil soul takers has been an ongoing labor of love for Karney. As the fullback position has been phased out of the game over the last 15 years, he’s worked to help keep the lost art alive, especially as fewer coaches around the country have expertise on what it takes to be an elite fullback.
“I want the position to come back,” he said. “It’s a great position. I think the fan base wants it to come back.”
Hatch isn’t the first Sun Devil fullback Karney has helped mentor. In 2018, ASU moved Nick Ralston from linebacker to play fullback in certain packages, and Karney helped Ralston develop his game.
If there's a Sun Devil fullback on the roster, Karney is there to help.
“I think that’s what former players should be doing,” Karney said. “I think that’s my duty. It’s pride. It’s what I want to see. I want to help any way I can. If I can help any of these guys that are trying to play it, I’m all in.”
To Karney's delight, his current protege has seemingly gone all in on the fullback life.
“I’m only thinking downhill for everything,” Hatch said.
With spring practices now in full swing, Hatch looks to have the physicality and mentality to succeed in the role. He has a Sun Devil great helping him. He even has the old school neck roll on his shoulder pads. Only one thing is missing.
Both Karney and Jeff Paulk, who starred as a fullback on ASU’s 1996 Pac-10 championship team, wore No. 44 during their time in Tempe.
“To me, Arizona State for a lot of years was Fullback U,” said Karney.
Hatch initially wore No. 54 when he was a linebacker, switched to No. 29 when he moved to fullback, and now says that a switch to No. 44 is "in the process."
A fullback wearing No. 44 plowing holes open in Sun Devil Stadium?
That's a great look in any year.
* * *
A great fullback doesn’t limit his leading to his blocks.
During the off-season conditioning program, the Sun Devils split into 10-man squads to help foster team-building as well as ramp up some friendly competition.
Case Hatch captained one such team. When the squads were being assembled, he made sure to select true freshman running back DeaMonte Trayanum. The talented four-star signee from Ohio joined the program in January and figures to see plenty of playing time this season, so Hatch wanted to start building their backfield rapport immediately.
“Case is like a role model,” Trayanum said. “I have to do everything to match Case because he’s the leader of the team."
The pair quickly bonded.
“I’m really grateful for him," said Trayanum. "We have a great on and off the field relationship.”
His leadership has also extended well beyond Trayanum. Throughout the off-season programs, whether in the weight room or during team activities, Hatch has continued to establish himself as an emotional leader of the team.
“Case Hatch is an energy guy, and he reminds me of (ASU senior wide receiver) Frank Darby,” said redshirt sophomore running back A.J. Carter. “Hatch is something special.”
* * *
Arizona State’s new offense has so far been as advertised. Zak Hill’s scheme is built upon a downhill running attack that features multiple formations and personnel packages along, along with lots of pre-snap shifts and motion.
Plus plenty of Case Hatch.
He’ll be in the backfield one play, shifting out to an H-back spot the next, and split out wide after that. With his skillset, Hill is able to utilize Hatch in a number of innovative ways, both as a blocker and a playmaker.
“You saw him in the bowl game catching something in the flat,” Hill said. “He's got the athletic ability to make someone miss and extend the play. He can be in multiple roles, an H-back and a fullback role.”
It’s a position that Hatch feels represents an evolution of the fullback.
“I feel that the fullback that is coming back is not the traditional fullback,” Hatch said. “It’s more of a hybrid, able to go out for a route and able to block at the same time and make that wall.”
It will be interesting to track how Hatch is used and how many chances he gets to touch the ball throughout the upcoming year. But for all the shifts, routes, and new wrinkles, his primary role will be like the fullbacks before him: Clearing holes for his running backs and setting the tone for the offense.
“Case Hatch is one of those guys that is a true fullback,” Hill said. “He's not scared, and he will come downhill on some backers and ends and create problems for them. It's fun for an O-line, and it's fun for a back to go behind a fullback that's willing to give it up for you.”
Playing fullback is an often thankless position, one that requires a unique type of player. It also embodies what it takes to succeed in the sport, no matter the era.
Hit the guy in front of you.
Case Hatch initially made the move to help the team, and in the process, found a home by doing what he loves most.
“My favorite thing is that contact. I don’t care if I have the ball in my hands, there’s just something about hitting someone.”