Despite losing a former Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year to the NFL, you won’t find much anxiety aimed at the Wisconsin football team’s running game for the upcoming season.
As John Clay prepares for the next stage in his career, the long bloodline of great Wisconsin running backs continues to produce its thoroughbreds, and the backfield is once again primed to be the offense’s strength.
Two-thirds of the famed “Three-Headed Monster” that was Wisconsin’s running attack last season returns for more this spring, along with a new face and a forgotten one.
Junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White – who together churned out 2,008 of the 3,060 total yards of the “Monster” – are now joined by redshirt freshman Jeffrey Lewis and rejoined by redshirt senior Zach Brown.
Clay, however, is not the only member of the running back family freshly departed from the Badgers. John Settle, the running backs coach for the last five years, ended his tenure at Madison by accepting the same job with the Carolina Panthers in the NFL.
Thomas Hammock, a former running back at Northern Illinois and running backs coach at Minnesota, replaces Settle as the running back patriarch. According to all four of Wisconsin’s running backs, Hammock brings a much less laid-back approach to coaching than his predecessor.
“A lot more punishment man, a lot more punishment,” Lewis said of Hammock’s style.
And under Hammock, all four players are looking to improve their game in various ways this spring.
Ball gains speed, drops weight
Ball’s eight-yard, arm-stretching, game-winning touchdown run against Iowa, which saw him take on three different Hawkeyes along the way, was a trademark play of his from last year.
Weighing in at 230 pounds last year in a 5-11 frame, Ball proved to be another exhausting power back that ran close to the ground to compliment Clay and White.
But since the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Ball has taken it upon himself to shed some of those pounds for quicker feet and more stamina.
Ball said he spent three or four weeks of the offseason going on three-mile runs while subscribing to a new diet. According to Ball, he currently checks in at about 213 pounds and hopes to get back to 222, where head coach Bret Bielema would also like to see him.
Ball is certain he is still as strong as he was last year and is enjoying that same old feeling on lighter legs.
“I’ve noticed I’m not getting as tired,” he said “I feel a lot faster, I feel like my footwork’s a lot better, and it’s always good to stay in shape early.”
White refining his game
Bursting onto the scene his freshman year, White led all Wisconsin backs with 6.7 yards per carry en route to a 1,000-yard debut season. But he’s certainly not finished there.
The fleet-footed White functioned as a perfect change-of-pace back for the Badgers last season as his counterparts, Clay and Ball, used a more bruising running style without break-neck speed.
White hit the holes on the offensive line pretty hard last season, but the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native said he still hopes to improve there as well as make better reads on the defense. Another year with the playbook, he said, should make his runs much more “smooth.”
And with the addition of Lewis and a slimmed-down Ball, speed will be more abundant this season. But, according to White, the UW backfield still won’t lose any of its dynamic qualities from last year.
“I think we’re pretty strong,” he said. “Each and every one of us has enough speed to get around the corner and enough power to run through the middle, so each and every one of us brings a lot to the table.”
Brown back for more
Brown, who began the 2009-10 season as Wisconsin’s No. 1 back, returns to fray after redshirting what would have been his senior year.
Now entering his last season of eligibility, Brown hopes to add to the 1,152 career rushing yards he’s amassed over his previous three years as an active player.
Although he does not regret redshirting, Brown said it did remove him from UW’s playbook for a year because of his status as a scout team member. That’s forced him to play catch up on certain offensive elements implemented within the last year.
Nevertheless, Brown said he was able to use the year off to shake off nagging injuries and improve his fitness. He will most likely fight for the No. 3 spot in the backfield with Lewis but still hopes to be considered a playmaker and leader for his teammates.
“I feel like I have to step in and use what I’ve learned over the years to give to the young guys,” he said. “So definitely, try to step in and lead.”
Lewis looking to impress
At 6-foot-2, Lewis is the Badgers’ tallest player out of the backfield and might just be the fastest as well.
According to Lewis, Hammock is thrilled with the speed but is still looking for the redshirt freshman to improve his agility.
“Coach Hammock told me I need to get better with my quickness, but the speed is there,” he said.
And, despite having much less experience than his fellow running backs, Lewis might be able to see the field through the passing game. Wisconsin did not frequently utilize its running backs in the passing game last year. Between Ball, Clay and White, the three only caught 28 passes.
Nonetheless, Lewis is said to have a good pair of hands, and his size and speed could earn him playing time as a third down back for the Badgers.
But no matter how or when he earns that playing time, Lewis understands being a part of the competitive backfield at Wisconsin is fortunate occurrence.
“I come out here everyday and it’s like a job interview,” he said. “I’m in a truly blessed predicament. This is one of the most competitive backfields in the country, and that brings the best out of me everyday, just to compete with these guys.”