March 12, 2011

Spring outlook: Running backs

So many times when a coach leaves for a better gig he does so when the cupboards are bare. Whether it's a head coach for a given program or an important assistant, it just seems that riding the coattails of success presents better opportunities.

When John Settle left the Badger program for the greener pastures of the NFL, he left a situation that several position coaches around the country jumped on. Eventually Thomas Hammock, a former UW assistant and previous Minnesota running back coach, was granted the job.

And there's a whole bunch to get excited about even after seeing John Clay leave early to start his career at the NFL level.

Sophomore James White and junior Montee Ball will be one of, if not the top, running back tandem in the Big Ten once the season begins in September.

The two combined for more than 2,000 yards a season ago and scored 32 touchdowns. Both also averaged more than six yards per carry en route to their very impressive seasons.

What makes it even more impressive is the fact that Ball played sparingly through most of the early stages of the season and White missed some time with a couple injuries. They still competed and produced at the highest of level.

Had Ball picked up four more yards throughout the course of the regular season UW would have become the first school in NCAA history to have three different rushers with more than 1,000 yards on the ground.

Losing the likes of Clay will probably make it tough for the Badgers to try and accomplish a similar feat in 2011, but with more carries to go around it's not too far fetched to think Ball and White could each shatter the 1,000-yard plateau again this coming season.

With the way he played, really from that Iowa game on, Ball will enter camp as the No. 1 running back. He'll be the bruising back that gets the bulk of the carries between the tackles.

White, with such elusiveness and speed, will likely get more action off tackle so he can utilize he agility in space. Both present skill sets that make it difficult for opposing teams to gameplan against and White is a playmaker that literally has a chance to score every time he touches the ball.

Those two will be the unquestioned focal point of the Badger offense this season, particularly knowing there will be a fresh, and young, quarterback replacing Scott Tolzien.

The running back depth chart gets a bit more muddled once you get past the top two. Will Zach Brown be involved in the offense a bit more after spending last season redshirting as a junior? Will Jeff Lewis, who several claim to be the fastest player on he team, emerge much the same way guys like Ball and White did a season ago?

The talent at running back, like it always is at Wisconsin, seems to stacked yet again entering the 2011 season. The work ethic is also there.

"It's truly been an experience," Lewis said during bowl prep in regards to his first full season in the program. "I love it to death because we're all working. I like to say that nobody is working harder than us because we come in here and we grind every day. It's just a part of the game so I'm liking the experience."

Don't forget about Kyle Zuleger. If there were a dark horse that could emerge this spring knowing he'll get a bevy or reps, it would be the sophomore from Appleton. During fall camp a season ago, Zuleger continually impressed by running hard every time he touched the ball.

He won't wow you with his athleticism like White or Ball will, but he could work his way into a serviceable roll as a third option of Lewis proves to not be ready. Depth chart positioning battles are what make spring camp so intriguing to cover.


There's no doubt Ball will be the No. 1 option as the prototypical Badger back. He's strong, runs physical and seems to have had a determination throughout the final half of last season once he started getting consistent carries. He should have more than enough confidence moving forward into spring camp.

White will also be a mainstay in the running back rotation. Though it wouldn't be surprising to see Paul Chryst get a little creative with White and use his dynamic cutting ability to sharpen the passing game much like he did when Brian Calhoun wore the Cardinal and White. Having a legitimate pass catching threat out of the backfield will do nothing but help the confidence of whichever young quarterback earns the starting spot.

The battle between Brown and Lewis for the No. 3 spot will be very intriguing. Will the senior leader be able to take that step and get back into the rotation or will yet another freshman rise to the occasion and play past his years. Again, that's the beauty of spring camp.

With another solid line returning, including three starters from a season ago, expect the Badger running backs to succeed once again.



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