Through a breakout junior season, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball tied Barry Sanders' Football Bowl Subdivision single-season record for touchdowns with 39 and led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and Doak Walker Award and assaulted the record books.
But when it came down to himself looking in the mirror, listening to his heart and seeing that the NFL advisory board rated him a probable third-round pick, Ball knew that it was going to be his intention to honor the letter of intent he signed to the fullest by returning for his senior year.
"I believe that I am better than a third round," said Ball Thursday. "Once I saw that, I was learning more to coming back for my players, myself and bettering my stock in the offseason.
"Obviously I am taking a pretty huge gamble coming back for my senior season, but I believe that I am making the right decision. Money was obviously a huge factor in staying or leaving. Other than that, I know I am making the right decision in the bottom of my heart."
There's no question Wisconsin is getting a huge boost back to an offense that already needs to find a replacement for Big Ten quarterback of the year Russell Wilson and at least 40 percent of its offensive line.
Averaging 6.3 yards per carry last season, Ball – who told his fellow running backs he was returning last Saturday and the rest of the team in the postgame locker room - finished with the No. 3 single-season mark in program history behind Ron Dayne (2,109 in 1996 and 2,034 in '99), shattered the program record of 144 points with 236 points and became only the fourth player to run for at least 100 yards in consecutive Rose Bowls, joining O.J. Simpson of USC (1968 and '69), Dayne of UW (1999 and 2000) and Vince Young of Texas (2005 and '06).
Ball was one of the offensive stars of the 98th Rose Bowl Monday in rushing for a game-high 164 yards on 32 carries (5.1 ypc average) and the record-tying score. The only problem was that Wisconsin and Ball fell short in a 45-38 loss to No.6 Oregon. Ball also becomes one of the early Heisman favorites.
"As a football player, I enjoy personal goals (and) the individual accolades," said Ball. "I am really looking forward to winning the Heisman Trophy, if it happens. Other than that, from a team standpoint, I believe we have to focus a lot more on the offseason and prepare even harder. Attack every day for what it is and don't let anything slip by."
Since Ball was named one of the final Heisman Finalists, it was widely expected – just like UW running backs John Clay, P.J. Hill and Brian Calhoun before him – that he would make the jump to the NFL despite having one year remaining.
Bielema had been preparing Ball - who has rushed for 3,310 yards and 55 touchdowns in 34 games - for the upcoming media blitz since early October, bringing Ball, his mom and his dad into his office to prepare him for the road ahead. He also started planting the seed of how good he could be next year.
"I make little comments to him all the time," Bielema said leading up to the Rose Bowl. "At the Doak Walker ceremony, I said it would be great to win it next year. At the Heisman, it would be great to come back. Little things like that. I think his mom and dad have enjoyed the process."
According to the NFL Players Association, the average career of an NFL player is 3.3 years while running backs have the shortest average careers of just 2.57 years.
"Your lifespan is shorter than other positions and I thought about injuries and other stuff, but I could have had a career-ending injury in the Rose Bowl game," said Ball. "I really look forward to preparing myself in the offseason and becoming stronger and faster, bettering my stock and the team."
In order to have a big senior season, Ball plans to add around 10 pounds to his frame over the offseason to add some strength back to his frame, allowing him to become even stronger and faster for the 2012 season opener September 1, 2012 against Northern Iowa.
"I know I will come into this season better than I did this past year," said Ball. "We have a lot of great players that are waiting their turns. This is there year to shine, so I believe they are going to come in and ready to work right next to me."
The advice Ball received probably hinted that the way he has increased his stock over his UW career, he could turn himself into a top 15 pick. After finishing second on team in rushing yards (391), rushing touchdowns (four) and rushing attempts (98) his freshman year, Ball exploded in the second half of last season with five straight 100-yard games racking up a total of 777 yards in those five contests.
He was third on the team in rushing behind Clay and James White, but Ball led the team with 18 touchdowns. He was even better this season after diligently sticking to a weight loss plan that trimmed upwards of 25 pounds off his frame while keeping his explosiveness.
Ball also developed in the passing game, finishing fourth on the team in catches (25), yards (306) and receiving touchdowns (6). In his first two seasons combined, Ball had only 25 catches for 210 yards and no scores.
"Ball has a nice blend of power and speed that allows him to hit the hole quickly and make defenders miss between the tackles," said one NFL scout. "Taking care of his body the way he did and thriving in an NFL-style offense will help his status whenever he decides to declare."
Luckily for Wisconsin, that draft will be the one in 2013, and he'll be motivated to prove the naysayers wrong.
"There's obviously some negative feedback, "Why would he stay? He can't better his stats. He can't better than what he did this year,'" said Ball. "What I am going to say to those people is, ‘You don't know what I am capable of doing. You don't know what I can and cannot do for next season.' I guess just sit back, relax and just enjoy another great season."
"I'm thrilled that Montee has decided to return to school next year. He made tremendous strides both on and off the field during the offseason a year ago and I expect him to work just as hard this year. I know he wants to improve not only to make himself a better player but also to help his teammates pursue a third-straight Big Ten title.
"Montee will be one of the top returning players in the country and I know he will thrive with that spotlight on him. It's a credit to Montee that he is willing to accept that challenge and try and help our program continue our success."
Montee Ball Press Conference Audio -