March 6, 2010

Spring outlook: Running backs

MADISON - If there were any questions surrounding the running back position entering the 2009 season, John Clay answered them quickly.

Will Clay be able to withstand the rigors of a full Big Ten season without suffering a lingering injury? Check.

Will Clay be able to handle the brunt of the workload and eventually become the go-to guy on the Badger offense? Check.

Will the 250-pound mass of humanity become troublesome and eventually wear his body down? Absolutely not.

Now, entering another spring camp, it seems as though the reigning Big Ten player of the year is poised to become not only one of the best in the conference, but one of the best in the entire country.

After rushing for more than 1,500 yards as a sophomore and 18 touchdowns, Clay is entering a junior season where his potential seems limitless.

"I'm coming back," Clay told reporters following Wisconsin's impressive bowl victory over Miami. "I've been telling you this whole year that we got an explosive offense. The sky is the limit. I'm missing Mickey Turner and Garrett Graham, but just like you saw today, Lance Kendricks stepped up. We got Scott Tolzien coming back, all the wide receivers coming back. The sky is the limit for this offense.

"I'm not going to miss any opportunity to be a part of this again."

When spring camp opens next weekend, it will be interesting to see what Clay's body looks like. Obviously, the powerful, downhill runner was not bothered by his weight a season ago, but it would be interesting to see what a chiseled frame would do for his stamina, style and power.

Joining Clay in the backfield is sophomore Montee Ball. By the end of last season, it seemed as though the true freshman had passed by junior Zach Brown on the depth chart as he started to see more carries in pivotal stretches of the game.

Two games, at Indiana and at Hawaii, when Ball really showcased his talents immediately come to the forefront.

At Indiana, Ball handled the bulk of the workload when Clay became ill on the sideline and rushed for 115 yards on 27 carries. He also punched in two touchdowns.

Then, at Hawaii in the regular season finale, Ball racked up 78 yards rushing on only 15 carries (5.2 ypc) and a score. Overall, in just his first year on campus, Ball finished the season just shy of 400 yards from the ground while accumulating four touchdowns.

Entering spring camp, one where the Missouri native has a chance to increase his role behind the workhorse of Clay, it will be interesting to see the areas the sophomore has made improvements.

"The speed of the game, I've got that," Ball said back in November following his performance at Indiana. "The vision, I'm still trying to work on that, you know, where the holes are going to hit and then you've got to get there. I feel that will come.

"I just need to keep contributing to the team."

As a member of a talented group of underclassmen that features players the likes of Mike Taylor, Chris Borland, J.J. Watt, Kevin Zeitler, Peter Konz, David Gilbert and others, Ball likes where the program is heading following such a successful season.

"I would say we have great underclassmen that are going to come in and contribute," Ball said in the same interview mentioned above. "We are now. But like coach Bret Bielema said, we've got to worry about now and win these next three games.

"That's what we've got to do."

Rounding out the trio of experienced backs is senior Zach Brown. Following a year when the Florida native earned his way to the starting lineup in the season opener only to be replaced by both Clay and Ball as the season progressed, Brown looks to finish his career on a high note.

When the demotion became apparent in both instances, Brown could have moped around or whined about playing time. Instead, he just took everything in stride like any great teammate would and continued to work hard in practice with hopes of bettering himself.

As a result, Brown played an integral part in one of the more formidable backfields in the entire Big Ten conference.

"Zach's role, and I just had this talk with him, he's kind of like where he was last year with P.J. Hill and John," UW running backs coach John Settle said during the season. "He's going to come in on third downs. If we get into a rhythm on offense, he's probably going to stay in. If we convert, he'll probably stay in on first down and second down and get more opportunities.

"Montee came in and with his running ability and his style, once he started to make plays it was hard to get him off the field."

Brown finished the season with 279 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Though he was moved down the depth chart as the season progresses, the senior has shown on several occasions that he can handle the brunt of the workload.

So, in case injury was to happen in either spring practice or when fall camp starts up in August, he would be a likely candidate to move back up the depth chart.

"I think he takes pride of the fact that he's on the field on third own and two-minutes situations because that's when a lot of defenses are going to challenge you," Settle said. "He's a team player. Was he happy? At first, no. But he saw and understood how it helped the team and how it all worked together.

"He's moving to that role and he's going to continue to help us for the next few weeks and we'll see where we end up."

A quick look at fullback:

With the departure of Mickey Turner, it seems walk-on bruiser Bradie Ewing will get a chance to man the fullback position. But as is usually the case, spring practice brings plenty of opportunity for other players to switch their position and try something new.

UW could give Ewing the nod at the position or it could use some of the younger tight ends in the bunch like Jake Byrne in a similar fashion as it did with Turner. Only time will tell.

Projected depth chart:

John Clay, JR
Montee Ball, SOPH
Zach Brown, SR

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