Spring Position Preview: Running Backs

After scoring an NCAA record-tying 39 touchdowns last season, fans wondered how Wisconsin was going to replace the kind of production Montee Ball delivered last season. Lucky for UW, those questions will wait one more season, as Ball returning for a senior season strengthens the Badgers' running game.

MADISON - After answering question after question about Vonte Jackson, Leo Musso and D.J. Singleton, Thomas Hammock was asked if the biggest recruit the Badgers added to next year's roster wasn't somebody they've had for the last four years.

Hammock didn't disagree, especially considering everyone thought Montee Ball would be in the NFL instead of returning for his senior year at Wisconsin.

"I won't argue with that," said Hammock with a grin.

A Heisman Trophy finalist, a consensus first-team All-American, a finalist for Doak Walker Award, the Graham-George Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year, there's no denying that Ball – a shoe in to be named one of the team's captains – won't be the main form of offense once again for the Badgers.

Ball is coming off a season where he tied an NCAA record with 39 touchdowns (33 rushing, 6 receiving) on the season, scored at least two touchdowns in each of the first 13 games (an NCAA record) and led the country in rushing with 1,923 yards, the third-best total in school history, and in yards from scrimmage with 2,229 yards (1,923 rushing, 306 receiving). With a team that loses its quarterback, No.1 wide receiver and 60 percent of its offensive line, having an established running back will help with the transition process.

"Montee is only worried about his performance (this season)," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "He's not trying to produce the same numbers. He's not trying to do anything other than win football games and play his best football. He's trained extremely hard. He looks extremely fast."

The return of Ball means junior James White will have to put on a smiling face once again, as the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will be relegated to backup status. It's too bad, because White could start on a number of Big Ten teams. After leading the team in rushing yards and all-purpose yards as a freshman, White finished second on the team with 713 rushing yards and third with 1,178 all-purpose yards last season.

His touchdowns also dropped from 14 to 8, but White has proven to be a valuable commodity in the receiving and return game, as he caught 15 passes for 151 yards last year and had 15 kick returns for 315 yards, an average of 21 yards per return. This spring will allow offensive coordinator Matt Canada to figure out how to incorporate White into the offense, because he's too good of a player not to have on the field.

The logjam behind Ball and White remain the same for the second straight camp, as redshirt sophomore Jeff Lewis and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon look for carries. Lewis played in seven of 14 games, all in blowouts, has rushed 33 times for 187 yards and a score. Lewis is one of UW's fastest running backs, but has battle some wrist injuries in his career that have held him back. The Brookfield native will need a big spring to show his stuff but won't be full go until the third week of camp after tweaking a hamstring two weeks prior to camp.

Gordon was slated to be an important contributor last year, but a nagging groin injury forced him on the shelf after appearing in three of the team's first four games. The good news is that Gordon qualified for a redshirt, meaning he didn't lose his year of eligibility despite rushing for 98 yards and a touchdown. Gordon, like Lewis, will be limited this season with Ball and White ahead of them in the depth chart, but can prove himself useful in the kicking game.

Although he is likely headed for a redshirt after missing most of last season with an ACL tear, true freshman Vonte Jackson isn't approaching this spring like he's planning on sitting next season. Adding over 19 pounds to his frame since coming on campus, Jackson won't be involved in non-contact drills until the summer, but has already impressed the coaches.

"He's just limited because of the ACL (injury)," said Bielema. "He is a very, very good football player that we're excited about."

While the running back position appears to be set, the biggest question appears to be what the Badgers are going to do with fullback and their ‘21' formation. With Bradie Ewing in the mix, that proved to be the bread and butter for Wisconsin in its short yardage run game, a reason why the Badgers ran the formation between 20-30 percent of the time in 2011.

This spring, redshirt sophomore Sherard Cadogan will get every opportunity to earn the spot. Playing in nine games a season ago, Cadogan was recruited to Wisconsin to play as a tight end or a slash fullback. With UW having capable bodies at tight end, Cadogan spent time working at fullback dating back to last year's fall camp and has trimmed up his body to a lean 236 pounds.

According to Bielema, Cadogan is moving better and more efficient than he has in the past.

"The thing I told Cadogan is, ‘You want to hear that personnel called more, you need to do well while you're in there,'" said Bielema. "That's just players always say, well, coaches play favorites. Yeah. We play favorites. They're called the best players. And it makes it really easy to play a certain personnel grouping if you think it can have success. So I'm excited for Sherard."

Backing up Cadogan will be Derek Straus, a 230-pound redshirt freshman that rushed 134 times for 1,048 yards and 19 touchdowns and caught 27 passes for 628 yards and six touchdowns at Waunakee. Bielema mentioned that Hammock has been impressed with the work of Straus and he, along with some options, might get a look after spring break.

Although the Badgers have some questions in their backfield, they have no doubt who their leader is on the group. "For Montee to have faith in us, in our program and us moving forward, it speaks volumes of him as a person, to what's important to him as a person," said Hammock. "I am going to wear him out recruiting next year. Every running back that comes on campus, they are going to talk to Montee Ball."

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