Spring Football Preview: Running Backs

Starting on March 22, Wisconsin football starts its run to the 2012 Rose Bowl with five straight weeks of spring football. In preparation for the camp, Badger Nation breaks down the seven positions over the next seven days. Today, we examine the running backs.

MADISON — New Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock should enjoy a pleasant surprise when he first works with the Badgers backs as spring camp opens March 22.

It won't be the fact that he has two 1,000 yard running backs in his stable to teach. Nor will it be that both Montee Ball and James White have at least two more years in the program for Hammock to enjoy. Although, both are nice.

No, Hammock will get to enjoy the simple pleasure of giving orders and directions and seeing them promptly followed — with zest even.

You see, departed running backs coach John Settle left behind a simple credo that Badger running backs have grown used to: Production Plays.

As a result, any slack practice, any drill where another running back outshines you is one very real step closer to riding the bench. Every day demands the running backs very best, because if they don't give it, a teammate will.

"It is not something we just pay lip service to," Settle said during the season. "We have always played the guys that give us a chance to win. When we are recruiting, we lay it all out right away. No one comes here with false promises. All of our backs no production plays."

Presumed starter Montee Ball discovered both the worst and best of that maxim in 2010.

After coming on strong as a freshman in 2009, Ball assumed he would be the No. 2 man in the offense behind John Clay for Ball's sophomore year. Following a slow fall camp, however, and struggling in the first few games of the season, true freshman James White took Ball's place in the lineup as he failed to produce. Moved to No. 3 on the depth chart, Ball finally hit the bottom when he didn't receive a single carry in the Badgers epic victory over Ohio State.

Still, Ball said all the right things, kept his head up and was given another chance when Clay went down with a knee injury in the next game. He stopped dancing in the backfield and started to produce once again during Big Ten play. By the end of the season, Ball had amassed 18 touchdowns and 996 yards at 6.1 yards per carry.

"It is always good when you have guys that learn from their mistakes and move forward," Settle said. "It happened to him early and it seems to have a lasting effect with him. It was pretty easy to get his attention to it."

"I credit them for that for sure," Ball added. "They are most definitely men of their word."

Where the Badger running backs work ethic shines through isn't in yards or touchdowns — though with White and Ball combining for 2,048 yards and 32 touchdowns, the stats do look shiny — but in ball security.

Including Clay, the UW running back trio combined to take 506 carries and lose one fumble last season. And even that one meager fumble came as a result of White trying to stretch the ball over the end zone pylon for his first career touchdown.

After the play, White was pulled aside by Bielema who delivered a quick message to his freshman speedster.

"At Wisconsin, we run the ball through the end zone," Bielema said. "We don't stretch the ball across, we run it across."

White learned quickly. He didn't fumble for the rest of the season.

"The guys do a heck of a job accepting responsibility for our actions. If you mess up in practice they know they are pulled right out, and those type of things add up," Settle said. "The biggest thing, is it has to be a pride factor. And that stuff comes with focus.

"If you are busy beating yourself you are not beating the other team."

After Ball and White, redshirt senior Zach Brown will be given an opportunity to earn playing time once again after injury and uneven performance forced him out of the running backs rotation in 2010.

Brown rushed for 1,152 yards at a respectable 4.8 yards per clip in his first three seasons, but took a voluntary red shirt last year when it became clear during fall camp the emergence of White had pushed him to No. 4 on the depth chart.

The fifth-year senior should be more motivated than ever with Wisconsin's top ranked prospect Melvin Gordon enrolling in the fall, creating a situation similar to last year for Brown, and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis getting more comfortable in the offense.

Lewis averaged 6.6 yards per carry during his senior year at Brookfield Central High, and earned his UW scholarship after impressive Settle with his shiftiness, speed and agility.

"I have had dramatic increases with my speed and my strength," Lewis said. "Overall, my explosiveness has gotten better. I can tell the way I come off the ball and making my cuts on points that my speed is getting there."

Gordon was a first-team all-state selection by AP and Wisconsin Football Coaches Association as a senior, also WFCA's Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 38 touchdowns and 2,009 yards on 158 carries and catching three touchdowns passes.

"[Gordon] shows toughness, can run between the tackles, but the added dimension is his top-end speed," Settle said during signing day. "We got really fast last year with Montee Ball and James White, and now we have gotten even faster."

It will be up to Brown to produce in a way that makes Bielema consider his running backs stable too deep for Gordon to crack in the fall.

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