One of the things Paul Chryst will find when he gets to Pitt, will be some depth at the running back position. He will only lose one running back from his current crop of running backs. That will ironically be Zach Brown, who he lost to Pitt this past offseason. That has to be an NCAA first—a coach losing the same running back in consecutive seasons at two separate schools.
Chryst is expected to have Ray Graham back. Graham was lost for the season after a knee injury sustained in the UConn game on October 26. Despite only playing seven full games and two plays into the UConn game, Graham's numbers (958 yards, 9 TD, 5.8 yards a carry) were still impressive enough to earn All-Big East honors in 2010. In addition to Graham, freshmen Isaac Bennett (219 yards, 2 TD, 4.5 yards a carry) and Corey Davis (12 games played). There's also five-star running back Rushel Shell entering the mix.
It might almost seem like too many running backs in the equation, but this is something Chryst has experience with. In 2010, the Wisconsin offense was nearly the first in FBS history to have three different players rush for at least 1,000 yards in the same season (James White, 1,052 yards; John Clay, 1,012; Montee Ball, 996). The Badgers tied a Big Ten record with 48 rushing TDs. Clay is now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was moved up to the active roster from the practice squad just this past week. White was the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in 2000. Ball, despite being that third option, had a breakthrough year of sorts, not to mention nearly surpassing 1,000 yards as the third option—something completely unheard of.
White and Ball both returned for the 2011 season, but the numbers told quite a different story in 2011. Instead of White leading the team, it was Ball leading the team in rushing. In fact, not only did Ball lead the team in rushing, he went on to one of the finest seasons any Wisconsin athlete has seen. He rushed for 1,759 yards and 38 touchdowns, on his way to first-team All-Big Ten and All-American honors. He was also invited to New York as one of five finalists for the Heisman Trophy.
More than that, though, Chryst said this week in preparations for Monday's Rose Bowl, that Ball's way of sticking through it—sharing the workload with White—has been impressive. A year ago, it was the younger player (White) who moved ahead of the older player (Ball).
"It all made sense at the time, and you appreciate how Montee went through it," Chryst said. "You look back now, and you think, ‘what were we thinking?'"
White led the team in rushing last season, while Ball waited his turn. Ball's emergence started to show at the tail end of last season when he earned the coaching staff's co-offensive player of the week honors against Iowa. He carried the ball just three times for 18 yards and a touchdown, but caught a team-best five receptions for 41 yards. After that game, and for the final four games, Ball rushed for over 100 yards each game.
Carried over to this year, Ball has emerged as the maintstay at tailback, despite White leading the team in rushing last year. Despite all of Ball's numbers this season, White still rushed for 683 yards and six touchdowns this season, while averaging 5.1 yards a carry.
"I think the world of James," Chryst said. "Things play out for a different reason. I think Montee's story is an awesome story. I think we all have to go through times that we have to hit a little bit of crossroads."
"It's a testament to our coaches of really taking advantage of our strengths and what we show a little bit in practice and make sure to obviously put that stuff in the playbook; but also with the depth we have, second and third string guys know they're one play away from becoming a starter," Ball said. "So they make sure that they get the second string and third string players ready for their chance."
Anything can happen heading into next season for Wisconsin. Ball could declare early for the NFL Draft, leaving White the every-down capabilities again. Ball could come back, and White could get the bulk of the carries again. Regardless of what happens, Chryst will come to Pittsburgh with possibly an even better scenario at running back in 2012. Similar to Wisconsin, anything can happen. He'll have Graham, two players for the future in Bennett and Davis, a redshirt freshman in Malcolm Crockett and one of the nation's most heavily-recruited players overall in Shell. Best of all, Chryst has experience in not only getting players to share the workload, but in also getting them to be extremely productive.
"I think that Montee decided to handle his situation, boy he grew," Chryst said. "All of our experiences make us who we are. I'm not so sure any of us would trade any of what happened. As hard as it was, I think there was a point where Montee says, whether recommitting yourself is a word. It was a lot harder on Montee than what he led us to believe. He was nothing more than a great team guy. He was ready, and the Iowa game (in 2010) he jumps in and his first play, he makes a big play. He was always prepared, always ready.
"I think when you look back now, it probably all makes him who he is and allowed him to do and have the year he's had. It's guys like that, that have a special place in your heart."