A Full Stable of Horses

With a stacked, experience running back group led by Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, running back coach Thomas Hammock can spend the spring focused on the finer details to give Ball, James White, Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon a big 2012 season.

MADISON - With some lucrative options on the table, nobody would have blamed Thomas Hammock from jumping ship. After all, he had only been at Wisconsin less than a year and there was already going to be plenty of change over with six other assistant coaches leaving for other opportunities.

But when Hammock took a step back and saw he had a group of talented running backs returning, including Heisman Trophy finalists Montee Ball, and was in line for a promotion at the school where his got his coaching start as a graduate assistant in 2003, he couldn't say no to UW.

After helping Ball led the nation in rushing and tie Barry Sanders' NCAA record for touchdowns scored in a season and developing younger players like James White, Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon, Hammock talks to Badger Nation about what he's looking for out of his group during spring practices.

Talk to me about the balance you are taking with Montee Ball. You obviously want to get him ready for the season, but you don't want to put a guy like him at risk before the season.

Hammock: The best thing that Montee can do is practice hard each day. Now, how many times do we need to tackle him? That remains to be seen. We definitely want him to get his reps in at practice and get the looks, get the reads and make the cuts to allow him to continue to progress as a player.

Is it hard holding a guy like that back?

Hammock: No because I think he understands, but he doesn't slow down. You watch him at practice and he's still taking his normal reps. He understands what we need to get done with him and also what we need to get done with the other guys, too.

What's the biggest change with his game from a physical, mental and leadership standpoint?

Hammock: Definitely this offseason he really attacked the weight room to get himself in top physical condition. He stepped up in a leadership department and he's constantly studying the game. He's been watching the tape of things he didn't do well last year in order to get better this year.

What do you like about having two running backs on the field at the same time, something you have been working with this past week?

Hammock: I just think those guys are competing to play and at the end of the day, you want to play your best 11. If Montee and James are part of our best 11, then they should play a little bit more. They are all competing. I've got four guys that are competing hard and want to get out on the field and help the team in any way possible.

Have you had to address anything with James White to keep his chin up with Montee coming back, especially since his workload likely would have increased if Ball would have left?

Hammock: Not at all. I think James is a strong competitor. I know football is important to win, but winning is important to him. We all know this is a team sport and no one person can do it alone. Whatever your role is, you have to do it to the best of your ability and try to help the team win.

How has James pushed himself this spring?

Hammock: I really like what James is doing right now. He's a quiet guy but you turn on the tape and he's doing the little things right. He's competing, he's making plays for us and we're looking forward to him making plays for us next season.

Melvin Gordon is back and healthy this season after the groin issue caused him to take a medical redshirt last year. How do you think that limited playing experience will help him?

Hammock: Any time you get a guy that has another year in the program, obviously maturity, learning as a player and doing all those things, he's doing some things in spring that he didn't do in fall camp being his first time in the program. That experience of having played in the game has given him a taste of what it's like to be out there, and he's hungry for more of that.

How has Melvin and Jeff Lewis pushed each other for that third-string running back role?

Hammock: I think all four guys are pushing each other. I really do. We are not really counting numbers. They are just fighting to be the best. All of them are probably looking at Montee and want a piece of what he has and want to compete with him. So they are competing against him and they are going after each other pretty good.

Who has taken the biggest physical jump to prepare themselves for this season out of your group? Is it easy to tell or have they all taken a big jump?

Hammock: I think they all have taken a big jump physically, mentally and leadership wise. I have been proud to watch them continue to develop.

How important was it for Vonte Jackson to get on campus to finish his rehabilitation and get a head start? How have you pushed him?

Hammock: I think it's been a positive thing that he's here. He's getting his rehab, he's getting healthy, he's getting the treatment he needs and he's learning the offense. When we get to fall camp, he's not a freshman anymore. He's already like a redshirt freshman or a sophomore because he's learned the offense and has a spring under his belt. In the fall, he can go out and perform.

How confident is he practicing?

Hammock: Really confident, and he's getting better each day. That's something I wanted to see. He's building confidence and I expect by summer conditioning, he'll be fully confidence to go out and do everything he's asked to do.

Your group had so much success with a guy like Bradie Ewing in front leading the way. How are you trying to figure out that fullback position which has been so key in your offense?

Hammock: I think anytime you lose a guy like Bradie, the next man has to step up. Bradie graduating is another man's opportunity. That's what we try to develop. That's what spring ball is for – to give guys a chance to show what they can do. That's what fall camp is for. We have a long time before we play a game, so we are going to continue to try to develop our player to be the best they can be.

Are the two main guys you are looking at for that position Sherard Cadogan and Derek Straus?

Hammock: Yep we're looking at those two, as well as a number of good tight ends. We're looking to play the best guys. We're not going to try to force a square into a round peg. You have to play the best guys. That may be putting a tight end into more of a fullback role or a fullback taking more of a Bradie role. We're going to try and develop that this spring.

You had some opportunities on the table to go elsewhere and you decided to come back for a second year. Did the decisions weight on you or was it pretty easy for you to decide to return?

Hammock: It was easy for me because I have a good group. I have a good group of kids. That's one thing I have told myself as a coach. I am going to stop chasing things. I have a good group of guys that I want to be around.

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