August 2, 2011

Fall outlook: Running backs

MADISON - Bret Bielema, especially considering his vantage point on the situation, is incredibly excited about his group of running backs. When asked about them at last week's Big Ten Meetings in Chicago, it didn't take long for his eyes to light up.

Montee Ball and James White, to be frank, combine to make not only one of the top tandems in the Big Ten, but also nationally. As far as running backs are concerned, the standard may have been set in Madison.

Just look at the numbers.

Considering John Clay also rushed for better than 1,000 yards and well over double-digit touchdowns, it's even more impressive that Ball and White combined for more than 2,000 yards and well over 30 touchdowns. Think about that for a second.

It's absurd.

Now, with Clay no longer in the picture, it's obvious that both Ball and White will take on even more in the run game. The sky is the limit. Is 1,500 yards each completely out of the question? There's nothing out there to suggest otherwise.

"Those two compete against each other all the time," Bielema said. "I saw it during winter conditioning. If one does it, the other thinks he can do it better. It's one of those deals.

Is 15-plus touchdown's each out of the question? One could argue it would be a disappointment if that wasn't the case. The talent that returns at the running back position, and with the offensive line that is set to take the field, might be the best backfield from top to bottom in UW history.

The Ron Dayne years were great, but it was basically just him. This year's Badgers have four guys that could legitimately contribute. And there might not even be that big of a drop off if the depth needed to go that far.

"Another guy that is just as competitive as those two (Ball and White) is Melvin Gordon," Bielema said. "Jeff Lewis is more of a sit back kind of guy, but Melvin is a competitive kid by nature. I think the patience that both Montee and James had this past spring was even better. I think Montee really had a good feel for it and it's even better now.

"Both of them, I think, can hopefully get involved in the passing game a little bit more."

Ball, who many believe will take the lead role this season, trimmed down to 210 pounds entering his junior season. Though that's the lightest playing weight he'll have played at during his UW career, Bielema isn't concerned about his ability to pop people with his strength. If anything, his added speed and quickness will elevate his game to new heights.

"I was worried a little bit about power and just some wear and tear," Bielema said. "But he didn't back down during the spring. I don't know the numbers, I just look at the person. You can look at me and say I look heavy. You can look at Montee and say he looks pretty good."

Burning question

Will there be a need for a third running back?

Injuries happen, as evidenced a season ago when both John Clay and James White had their fair share of issues. So yes, there will likely be a need for a third running back to emerge.

A season ago, James White came into fall camp and opened the eyes of everyone close to the team, from coaches all the way to reporters. Everyone was enamored with the way the true freshman from South Florida was able to come in and adhere to Paul Chryst's offense and the way he offered a true change of pace from the bruising style of Clay and White.

Now, knowing Ball and White will be the one-two punch, who will be the one to make a similar impact. Will it be Lewis, who like White, relies more on quickness and speed than does Ball? Or will Gordon continue the tradition of true freshmen contributors?

Bielema says Lewis is more laid back in nature and that Gordon is ultra-competitive. That should make for an interesting positional battle between the two young tailbacks. In short, isn't that what you want in fall camp?

On the rise

Jeff Lewis

He had a very, very strong spring camp. He performed well in the spring game and provides a different style. He runs more upright than any of the other backs, but with his speed and agility, he'll at the very least compete for reps this fall. He's one to keep an eye on.

It could change once camp finally starts, especially if Gordon makes a similar impact as White did a season ago, but for now, it seems as though Lewis is a back on the rise.

Stock falling

Kyle Zuleger

Those four guys ahead of Zuleger are pretty good if you haven't checked. It's going to be difficult for the sophomore from Appleton to break into the rotation unless catastrophic injury strikes.

The most interesting man

Melvin Gordon

If he's not the top recruit in the 2011 recruiting class, he's probably number two. He's one of the more talented prospects the state of Wisconsin had to offer and proved to be an explosive and dynamic playmaker at Kenosha Bradford High during his tenure there. If anybody is going to come in as a true freshman and make a major impact, it would be Gordon. How Bielema and Chryst utilize him in the offense would be just as intriguing as it was a year ago when White was breaking into the fray.

Noteworthy

Thomas Hammock will partake in his first season as UW's running backs coach, taking over for John Settle who took a job with the NFL's Carolina Panther's following UW's loss in the Rose Bowl.

Quoteable

Jeff Lewis on the difference between coach Settle and coach Hammock as coaches

"They're two totally different guys, but coach Hammock knows his X's and O's and he knows every playbook. He's only going to make you better. His coaching style is different than coach Settle's, but that's just something you have to grow to. I have the utmost respect for him and he's just going to make me the best player I can be."




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