It seems hard to believe now, but when the 2009 season began, redshirt sophomore John Clay was not even the starting option in the Wisconsin backfield. In fact, Clay started only one of the Badgers’ first six games this year.
Yet the Racine native is still the Big Ten’s leading rusher at 112.4 yards per game.
The fact that Clay started just once during the first half of the season seems to have been just what he needed to motivate him to lead the league in rushing.
“There’s been a couple times, (when I’ve challenged him),” offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said of Clay. “The thing I liked about John is that I think that he’s … never shied away from that. He takes anything that you say the right way.
“I think that he has had a few times where he’s kind of taken a little self-assessment.”
Clay came to Wisconsin as the No. 4 running back in the country after earning state player of the year honors twice and rushing for 5,005 yards and 58 TDs on 509 carries at Washington Park High School.
Needless to say, that success has continued at the collegiate level, though his stats aren’t quite as high now that Clay has to face stiffer competition on a weekly basis.
After rushing for 874 yards as a freshman in 2008 — the seventh most in the Big Ten — Clay has run for 1,129 yards through 10 games this season, including a career-high 184 yards on 32 carries in Wisconsin’s victory over Minnesota on Oct. 3.
The 6-foot-1, 248-pound Clay is not only having an excellent season rushing the ball, he also is moving up the ranks among the Wisconsin all-time leaders in career rushing yards.
After his 156-yard performance Saturday, Clay became the 12th Wisconsin back to rush for more than 2,000 yards. He now has 2,013 rushing yards in his second season, which ranks 11th in the UW record books.
According to Chryst, Clay’s best football may be ahead of him.
“I think he is growing, and I do think that he can get so much better,” Chryst said. “That’s kind of exciting to me, but he’s certainly been pivotal for us.”
For now, though, Clay has two games remaining in what could be a career-defining year for the UW workhorse.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema talked about submitting his votes for offensive and defense players of the year and freshman of the year in the Big Ten, suggesting his starting back is as deserving as any in the league.
“Offensive player of the year John Clay has just as good a right to say that he has that as anybody,” Bielema said in his Monday press conference.
Of course, if Clay were to win the award, it would be an acknowledgement not only of what he has done over the course of the season, but also of the strong play of the offensive line in front of Clay.
As Chryst put it, it is a situation where the Badgers cannot have one or the other. If either the offensive line or Clay were not playing up to the level they currently are, Wisconsin would not be tied for third in the conference with an opportunity to potentially clinch a share of its first Big Ten title since 1999.
Clay is well aware of the help he has gotten from his teammates and knows he will owe them something in return for helping him earn such an honor if he is named offensive player of the week.
“I have to pay them back for all they’ve gone through to get me to where I am,” Clay said. “I don’t know what I would do yet … but I’d probably take them out to eat, maybe to a buffet somewhere.”
Junior left guard John Moffitt offered his suggestion for where Clay ought to take them.
“We could just go to McDonald’s and get the doubles with Big Mac sauce, that’s one of Johnny’s favorites,” Moffitt said. “But a buffet … that might be a real good deal. There’s a new seafood/sushi buffet I just saw opened in West Towne … we may have to hit that one.”
Wisconsin football has had a history of running backs posting 1,000-yard seasons with 13 different Badgers accomplishing the feat.
Among those, six sophomores have eclipsed 1,000 yards, including Alan Ameche, Anthony Davis, Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill and Billy Marek. The most recent sophomore to do so was Clay, who joined the elite group Saturday in the Badgers’ 45-24 win over Michigan.
Thanks to Clay, Wisconsin has had a running back rush for more than 1,000 yards in 15 of the last 17 seasons, including each of the last five.
“I feel very blessed and honored to be in this kind of club,” Clay said. “Everybody that’s run for 1,000 yards — Ron Dayne, P.J. — they’re all great backs.”