Fall Camp Preview: Running Backs

With fall camp set to open in less than two weeks, Badger Nation breaks down each position for the 2011 season. With Montee Ball slimming down and James White speeding up, Wisconsin's running backs look stronger than ever.

MADISON - When the dust had settled and the fans woke up to start heading to their cards, Wisconsin's vaunted running game has rushed 52 times for only 135 yards, which averages out to 2.6 yards per carry, in a spring game that featured no offensive touchdowns. To put that number in perspective, junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White combined to rush for over 135 yards six times last year.

Could the drop off be because John Clay, with his 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, left for NFL glory? Was it because the backs were going up against one of the top defenses in the conference? Possibly the latter but after things worked out so well for the Badgers after the '10 spring game, why deviate from a successful plan?

"Last spring game, it was worse, it was terrible and we still went to the Rose Bowl," Ball said. "I feel that we're going to do the same thing last summer that we did this summer and we're going to carry forward."

On its way to the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin had three running backs eclipse 995 yards and 14 touchdowns and with the Badgers favored to make it to Indianapolis for the Inaugural Big Ten Championship game, the running game should be a strength once again, thanks to a bulked up Ball and a speedier White.

Ball's 2010 season could only be described as full circle. After coming on late as a freshman in 2009, a slow fall camp, early season struggles and the emergence of White dropped Ball to No.3 on the depth chart, and no carries against Ohio State.

"Coach (John) Settle just kept telling me, good job keeping your head up. You never know when your chance is going to come and you just have to keep your head up for when it does," Ball said.

So when White went down with a knee injury against Iowa, Ball was there. It was a turning point, as Ball finished the season with a team-leading 18 touchdowns on 996 yards at 6.1 yards per carry, and Ball has used that as a starting point toward a big 2011 season.

Having dropped considerable ‘waste' weight, Ball dropped roughly 15 pounds during winter conditioning by sticking to a strict diet and a lifting routine with strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. The result was adding noticeable quickness to his carries during the spring and never shying away from contact, all positives considering UW only lost one fumble in 506 carries last season.

"I felt way too heavy last year. Way to slow," Ball said. "I just know that by staying in shape now, I am sure it is going to help. Staying in shape now I am going to be in even better shape going into the season."

If Ball is going to find success though, he'll need White to continue being a playmaker. White was phenomenal last season en route to earning conference freshman of the year honors, utilizing sudden change of direction and speed to rush for a team-high 1,052 yards and 14 scores.

A self evaluation made White realize that he was making good cuts and making people miss in the open field, but he wasn't running with power, being susceptible to ankle and lower body tackles. An off season spent watching film and working with new running back coach Thomas Hammock changed that, as the position work focused on all the little things to improve on.

"I was making good cuts and making people miss in the open field, (but) I wasn't really running with power," White said. "A lot of us were tripping just by people slapping our feet. We need to pick up our feet and run through tackles, and I think we'll get a lot better just by watching ourselves from last year. Coach Hammock has already got on us about that and he's going hard on it, so we'll be ready come the season."

It's just the motivation White needs after his season, like his teammates, ended on a sour note in the bowl game. Rushing for only 23 yards on eight carries against TCU, White has approached the offseason with a chip on his shoulder and has spent a lot of time with strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, increasing his leg strength on the squat rack, working on cuts and ball handling.

"My goal is to do better than last year because people have film on me now and they know they need to stop No.20 and stop No.28 (Ball)," White said. "My goal is to say they won't be able to stop me and know that I am going to do better than last year. That's my goal."

Although not a household name like UW's other running backs, Bradie Ewing, a walk-on turned scholarship player from tiny Division 4 Richland Center High, had the simple goals of getting a degree and contributing to the football team. After next spring, he'll have completed both.

On schedule to graduate with a degree in sociology, Ewing is on schedule to have a big season for Wisconsin in the backfield after getting sidetracked with injuries last season. Ewing, despite being limited with shoulder stingers during camp, showed his mettle with a number of one-handed passes along the sideline that went for length gains and power short –yardage runs.

"It was a big learning experience. I came in at the beginning of the year, I had high hopes of being the starter out of the gate and they put in Ryan Groy in there, which motivated me," Ewing said. "I got my confidence rocked a little bit. I came out and made some plays as the year went along a little bit. I feel like the second half of the season that I did a little better and had my confidence and the coaches' confidence."

Now that he's healthy, Ewing, who played in all 13 games (three starts) and caught eight passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns last season, appears ready for a breakout season.

"I think a lot of it is a mindset, being able to flip it on when you hit the field and just sacrifice your body for the offense," Ewing said. "On the second note, just working with Coach Herbert and Coach Bott over the offseason was just awesome. I work with the offensive line and tight ends now, so I am like the smallest guy in the group and guys are always pushing me. Just trying to work hard and get better each day by putting in the extra effort and the time."

With Brown moving on, the Badgers can rely on true freshman Melvin Gordon and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis to make a similar to what White did last season. Gordon was a first-team all-state selection and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 38 touchdowns and 2,009 yards on 158 carries. 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."

Once again, it's apparent that UW's backfield is an embarrassment of riches and one of the deepest units in the country.

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