Fall Camp Preview: Running Backs

When developing a plan of attack, the theme of 'strength in numbers' is one of schemes that usually yields success. With a Heisman finalist, a conference freshman of the year and one of the strongest players on the team in the backfield, Wisconsin's running game will be hard to stop in 2012.

This is the second in a series of eight previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 6 start of practice.

July 30: Quarterbacks

July 31: Running backs

Aug 1: Receivers

Aug 2: Offensive linemen

Aug. 3: Defensive linemen

Aug. 4: Linebackers

Aug. 5: Defensive backs

Aug. 6: Specialists

Projected starter: Montee Ball (senior)

Key backups: James White (junior), Melvin Gordon (redshirt freshman), Jeff Lewis (redshirt sophomore)

The breakdown:

As he sat addressing reporters in his crisp red collared shirt with a sharp black vest at Big Ten Media Days last week, senior tailback Montee Ball looked straight in their eyes and told him it wasn't guaranteed that he would be the starter for the season opener September 1 against Northern Iowa.

Yeah, OK, Mon-Tay!

Last season, Ball averaged 21.9 carries per game. He led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards. He set an NCAA record by scoring at least two touchdowns in his first 13 games of the season. He tied the all-time single-season FBS record by scoring 39 touchdowns last season, 33 of which came on the ground.

And while he may not be able to equal those kinds of numbers that put him fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, he's approached this offseason with something to prove on the field and in the weight room.

"On the first day of winter conditioning, he just gave me that look, nodded his head and let me know it was serious," said strength coach Ben Herbert. "I know he didn't come back to waste his time to go through the motions. He came back to be the best in the country. The way he worked will give him the opportunity to do that. Nobody comes back to take a step back. You come back to be disciplined, work hard, more consistent and be better than you were last year."

All indications are Ball has done just that to put himself in position to have another prime year. After shedding upwards of 20 pounds last summer to be more explosive, Ball has put 10 pounds back on his frame to be stronger when he takes on defenders. Sitting at 215 pounds and feeling fit, Ball has set the tone by spurring the NFL and pushing his teammates, along with him, to be better.

"Not only to have that kind of talent come back, but to push himself and other guys in the offseason sets a good example," said junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. "It pushes you because you've seen how successful he's been, so it makes everyone else want to work that much harder to have a good season."

As part of their offseason preparation, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema told running back coach Thomas Hammock to give out some reading assignments to his players. Ball was given Walter Payton's autobiography to learn from. Bielema wanted his players to learn by reading and combine the book, the minor incident that happened in May with his arrest at the Mifflin Street Block Party and his nearby support have helped Ball grow.

"He's gotten an edge to him, things I couldn't provide (to him) on the field," said Bielema. "I think those were things he had to learn through being a kid who is up for the Heisman Trophy, the Mifflin deal (and) conversations between us, his mom and his dad. When mom gets after him, she might have as big affect as anyone in the country on him. I think that's a positive thing."

While he did not match the production from his freshman season (1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns), White was simply the victim of Ball's hot hand, finishing the year with 713 yards and six touchdowns. Many expect White to play a bigger role in first year offensive coordinator Matt Canada's attack this year, as the junior was used split out as a receiver in two-back formations.

White is certainly capable, catching 15 passes for 150 receiving yards and would be smart to get both him and Ball as many touches as possible.

"I honestly believe that he knows he could take the starting position just as fast. He's done it before," said Ball of White, who he calls one of his best friends on the team. "I've done it before when him and John Clay went down in a game. He's going to have a big part of this team. We go to work every day and try to make each other better in the weight room because the team is going to need both of us."

But even if Ball or White needs a break, the Badgers' depth at running back grew by leaps and bounds during the spring thanks to the output of Gordon. After seeing his true freshman season cut short after three games with a groin injury, Ball sought out Gordon before spring practice opened to make sure the younger back understood how hard he needed to work in the weight room and on the practice field.

Gordon took what Ball said to heart by shining in the spring, including a 159-yard, one-touchdown performance in the spring game.

"Melvin is very, very strong for his age," said Ball. "He's very fast, and he's going to be a really good player. A really good player."

Gordon said following the spring game that learning from a Heisman finalist has helped him ‘a lot' with the amount of tips he's received, but didn't feel at the time he stated his case to earn added playing time. With the amount of work he's done in the offseason, Bielema recognizes that Gordon will be a factor.

"If you ask Montee and James White who has the most talent in our group, they probably would both say Melvin," said Bielema. "The difference is you have to learn that mental side of it. That preparation. It's a fun position to be in."

It's also fun for Bielema knowing he has another speedster in Lewis – who was limited in the spring because of injury – available in the short term and Jackson available in the future, who has bounced back from a torn ACL suffered last fall.

According to Kenosha Bradford head coach Jed Kennedy, he never had a player take an injury harder than Jackson. Stuck in a reserved role behind Gordon his junior year, Jackson grinded all offseason to put himself in the best position to shine his senior year … even though he didn't have to worry about college after committing to Wisconsin the previous March.

Jackson rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries and catch one pass for 38 yards, but his season ended with 16 seconds left in the second quarter after the injury occurred on a tackle from behind. This came just days after Kennedy called Jackson the ‘best player in the state' before the season

"I remember getting the phone call from his dad and dad was really emotional, Vonte was really emotional," said Bielema. "When kids haven't been around an ACL injury … an ACL could have been a career-ending injury. Now you just rehab them and take care of what you are supposed to, you can come back just as strong as you were before.

"It was very difficult for them, but Vonte really got a chance to grow mentally. We're in a constant battle with him. The doctors want him to wear a brace and he doesn't want to wear a brace, which is really common."

The Badgers still have some work to do in terms of improving their running game, as the loss of fullback Bradie Ewing will be a growing process with sophomore Sherard Cadogan and redshirt freshman Derek Straus expected to take the majority of the reps.

But if that's the one area of weakness in the Wisconsin running game, fans should still expect big things with Ball leading the way.

"I do believe we have a strong backfield and that's because the way we come out every day. Montee is not content being a Heisman finalist. We all want to be better than the next day. We are competing every day and that's making us all better."

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