July 16, 2009

Fall Outlook: Running Backs

With Wisconsin's fall camp only a matter of weeks away, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look at the individual position groups. Today, our focus is on the running backs. Following the departure of P.J. Hill, sophomore John Clay looks to take the reigns as the next great Badger back heading into August's camp.

Departing Starters: P.J. Hill
Returning Starters: John Clay
Top Reserves: Zach Brown and Erik Smith
Freshman Impact: Montee Ball

Post-Spring Depth Chart:
So. John Clay (6-2, 247)
Jr. Zach Brown (5-11, 208)
Fr. Erik Smith (5-11, 200)
Fr. Montee Ball (5-11, 215)

Overview: Clay is undoubtedly one of the most talented backs in recent Badger history and now, after two years on campus, the Racine native finally gets his opportunity to be the lead rusher.

Though he turned some heads by starting spring camp at 247 pounds, Clay proved he can utilize that size without losing much speed or elusiveness. But, because he runs with a certain power that makes tackling him above the waist nearly impossible, he is susceptible to lower body injuries as evidenced by a nagging ankle injury throughout the 15 allotted spring practices. If he can manage his body and stay healthy throughout the season, he will be special.

Joining Clay in the backfield is veteran Zach Brown. After receiving limited reps a season ago, Brown looks to be perfect compliment to Clay in the Badger backfield. With his speed and solid frame, Brown will be a handful for opposing teams to contend with. He is especially useful in the flat and on screen plays as he has solid hands and quick feet that can make people miss in the open field.

Perhaps the most intriguing player throughout all of spring camp, though, was redshirt freshman Erik Smith. He is cat quick with a little bit of pop to go along with it. He runs hard for having such a small frame and will likely be the change of pace back the Badgers were missing a season ago.

"At the tailback position, I really felt John Clay made some strides just knowing what to do," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following spring ball. "But the guy that is exciting and jumps out at you is Erik Smith."

Finally, newcomer Montee Ball will look to enter into the equation when he arrives on campus to start fall camp. As the state of Missouri's all-time leading rusher, Ball has great credentials that could potentially land him in the rotation at some stage of the season. It will be interesting to see how he adapts his physical presence with the college game.

The Pro: Clay. One of the major critiques of Clay a season ago was his comfort level with the playbook. On multiple occasions, it seemed Clay was unsure of his assignment or the direction of the play and that cost him carries as the season progressed. It was evident throughout spring ball, however, that Clay had done his homework and seemed more cognizant of his assignment on most plays.

"I'm just here to do what my coaches ask of me," Clay said during spring practice. "Right now I'm trying to be focused and consistent. I'm focusing on knowing every play in the playbook. I want to be in the game during all situations."

If that eagerness to learn continues into fall camp and onto the field on Saturday's, Clay is poised for a breakout season. That, and his ability to limit the blows to his lower body will determine the success he, and inevitably the offense, has.

The Rising Star: Smith. After utilizing his redshirt option during his first season on campus, Smith looks ready to have a major effect on offensive production this fall. Throughout spring ball he showcased his speed and quickness that helped move the chains. A perfect example of his explosiveness was witnessed during the spring game when he rushed for 55 yards on only three carries.

"What I really like, Erik Smith, if he just has a sliver of room he can really get through there," Bielema said following the spring game. "And then he has a big boost."

After Lance Smith transferred out of the program, the Badgers were missing a diabolical change of pace back. But with the new Smith ready to get some game reps, that threat seems to be back on the roster.

The Rookie: Ball. Though he has yet to practice with the team, many are excited for what the newcomer Ball has to offer. Most know what he is capable of, but it will be interesting to see how his game translates to the college game and whether he will be able to get some reps in the rotation.

Battle To Watch: Things seem to be pretty set in the backfield with Clay heading the group and Brown backing him up. With the experience each of them have entering the season, it will be hard pressed to see Smith pass up Brown or Ball making that big of an impact right off the bat. So barring injury, Clay should receive the bulk of the carries with Brown as the solid No. 2 back.

Expectations: With Hill gone, it is Clay's time to shine. Since committing to Wisconsin two summers ago, many Badger fans have been excited to see his progression in the program. After a stellar redshirt freshman season, Clay will have limitless potential entering the season as the main guy. If he can stay healthy he has the tools necessary individually and an adequate offensive line that can help him become one of the Big Ten's best. Then with Brown, Smith and potentially Ball entering into the mix, the running backs seem to be one of the team's strongest units.

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