Right now, the Wisconsin running game is a three-headed beast.
There’s John Clay, the 6-1, 248 lb. power back that garners all the hype. There’s also James White, the latest Badger freshman sensation, who can outrun anybody on the field, catch the ball like a receiver out of the backfield and drop jaws on a weekly basis.
And then there’s Montee Ball, the man in the middle.
Ball finds himself between Clay and White in more ways than one. As far as size, the sophomore Missouri native is listed at 5-11, 236 lbs., smaller than Clay but larger than the 5-10, 198 lb. White. Also, on the speed-power spectrum, Ball finds himself squarely in the middle.
“The one thing that I think surprises a lot of people was his speed Saturday, being able to break out,” running backs coach John Settle said. “He scored on the long run they called back – we’re still trying to find the holding call. He showed the ability. He ran through a lot of tackles, something that John Clay hadn’t done this year, and James runs around guys to make them miss.”
Indeed, Ball was impressive Saturday against Purdue. In the Badgers’ 34-13 win, Ball rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, 6 yards per. With White suffering a knee injury the week before at Iowa, Ball was bumped up to the No. 2 spot on the running back depth chart behind Clay. But then Clay went down with a knee injury – a “slight” MCL sprain head coach Bret Bielema said Monday – and it was White’s shot for more carries.
“He had a great day,” Settle said. “Once again, he was a guy expecting to play a role and give John breaks here and there, and he ended up having to take the majority of the reps. He understood that he was the last one standing.”
Yes, Ball was the last one standing in West Lafayette, but not for the first time. Last year, the then-freshman burst onto the scene much like White has this year. Ball appeared in nine games, rushing for 391 yards and four touchdowns on 98 carries, 4.0 yards per. He also emerged as a reliable option out of the backfield, catching nine passes for 92 yards.
After putting on weight in the offseason to add power, Ball seemed to be building off his breakout 2009 season. In the season opener at UNLV, Ball rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, 4.9 yards per. Against FCS squad Austin Peay three weeks later, Ball received 11 carries and rushed for 64 yards with one touchdown. Yet, that was also the first game in which White’s name was listed besides Ball’s on the depth chart at the second running back spot. Against the Governors, White also received 11 carries – but rushed for 145 yards and four touchdowns. From there, White received double-digit carries every game until he got hurt in Iowa, while Ball was relegated to the No. 3 spot.
“I brought him in, actually, and I told him that he was pretty much being outplayed, that we were going to play production and right now, he was the third guy,” Settle said. “We put the film on in practice; it was pretty much a clear-cut decision. It was plain to see that, yeah, James had come in and outplayed him in camp, every time he took the field and made a play.”
For Ball, the move obviously wasn’t a happy one.
“Well of course, at first, I was – I don’t want to say I was sad – I was a little shocked,” Ball said. “But James came in hungry and then he deserved the spot. So I just made sure I kept my head on, just kept fighting and kept preparing.”
“It’s very hard, but you just got to fight through it and just keep preparing because it’s true that you never know when the next person’s going to go down,” Ball continued. “That’s what Coach B has been pounding into our heads, because most seniors now who’ve started, if you ask them how they got their first start, the person in front of them went down.”
Looking back, the irony isn’t hard to find in that quote, as it was White going down that thrust Ball back into the spotlight at Purdue. For Saturday’s showdown with Indiana, White appears set to return, while Clay may be held out. Either way, the running back situation seems to be somewhat clouded for the Badgers’ remaining three games – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as whoever gets the ball makes plays and picks up yards.
“You’ve got Montee back there running so hard, that’s what I love,” left guard John Moffitt said. “I love production, just like I’m sure they love production out of us. That’s when it really makes a difference to me, between John, Montee and James.”
Production on the ground won’t be difficult for the Badgers, as it rarely ever is. But what augments Wisconsin’s running situation, aside from the talent of its three backs, is the fact that despite the depth chart scrambling, promotions and demotions, chemistry isn’t just a clich? for Clay, White and Ball.
“They could all be three brothers, brothers living in the same household,” Settle said. “The thing I like about them is that when we get out to practice, they understand that it’s business. It’s time to get down to the task at hand, and they show up to work. …I like the fact that they help one another along. They understand the main goal here is to win.”
With the primary goal set and the players understanding it, all that’s left is execution. The Badgers know Clay will pound it up the middle and finish defenses off in the fourth quarter, and they know White will sprint and juke away from any defender lucky enough to get close to him. But where the luxury comes in is with Ball. The Badgers know Montee will be Montee, the man in the middle.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I have been doing,” Ball said. “Just keep preparing, because you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make sure that you’re prepared.”