July 28: Quarterbacks
Today: Running backs
July 30: Wide receivers
July 31: Tight ends
Aug 1: Offensive linemen
Aug. 2: Defensive linemen
Aug. 3: Linebackers
Aug. 4: Defensive backs
Aug. 5: Specialists
Key backups: Corey Clement (true freshman)
Departed Players: Montee Ball
Working with his running back group in preparation for the 2011 season, running back coach Thomas Hammock watched from the sideline as James White did what White usually does: run hard, run fast and move with purpose. It just so happened that on one of those occasions that a rouge defender got into White's path.
After White lowered a shoulder and leveled him to the ground, Hammock – a former running back in his own right – jumped like he hurdled the defender and shouted a nickname that has stuck for the 5-10, 195-pound tailback.
"If I hit somebody hard, he'll go, ‘Oh Mighty Mouse,'" said White, laughing. "It's pretty funny to joke around with."
While there may be some lighthearted moments when Wisconsin's fall camp opens, it will be all business in Wisconsin's running back room, especially considering a big piece of the puzzle is missing. But even with Montee Ball and his massive amount of career touchdowns gone to the NFL, the Badgers aren't expected to run backwards with senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon waiting in the wings.
"You definitely attack practice like you are the starter, no matter what," said White. "If you are second or third string, you never know if somebody is going to get injured. That's what I've been doing. I feel like I have been preparing for this moment throughout my career."
White burst on to the scene three seasons ago and was thought to have emerged as Wisconsin's next great storied running back. He was the conference's freshman of the year in 2010 after rushing for 1,052 yards with 14 touchdowns, but became the backseat driver to Ball's dominance over the ensuing two years.
He was a gimmick back last year running the inconsistent "barge" formation (a way for the coaching staff to get the ball into his hands) and finished with a career-low 806 yards, but still enters this season as the nation's No.2 returning rusher among tailbacks with 2,571 career rushing yards. He also has a career average of 6.1 yards per carry that leads all FBS running backs and is the best in school history, a good compliment to his 32 rushing touchdowns.
"I got use to it my sophomore year," White said of backing up Ball. "In the beginning, I was starting to not get as many carries and I started to get frustrated, but I never showed that. I just cheered on my teammates. I wanted the best for my team. I started to see that my opportunities would come and I'd do everything I could to help my team win."
Gordon carried that same motto last season, as evident by the way he was called upon consistently to run the "end around" as the season wore on, and see it work more often than not. He played in all 14 games last season and rushed 62 times for 621 yards with three touchdowns. His breakout performance came in the Big Ten championship, when he gained a career-high 216 yards on just nine carries and scored a touchdown in UW's pounding of Nebraska. His 10.0 yards per carry average led the country last year.
At 6-1 and 203 pounds, Gordon will slide into White's role from a season ago and will continue to add knowledge and confidence to his game to be an every down tailback.
With Jeff Lewis moving to safety and Vonte Jackson missing this upcoming season with a knee injury, Wisconsin is looking at true freshman Corey Clement to become the team's third back. Clement, a 5-11, 210-pounder, comes to Wisconsin as a four-star prep tailback who rushed for 6,245 career yards (2,323 yards coming last season alone).
UW might even give sophomore fullback Derek Watt a few carries. After transitioning to the position from linebacker in fall camp, Watt started every game as a fullback and was a threat out of the backfield with 12 catches for 150 yards. That's key, according to White, who said Wisconsin likely will pass the ball more than it has in the past.
"Coach Ludwig is a very smart guy," said White. "He's a great offensive coordinator. He's going to try to get his best players the ball in space, and that's all you can ask for as a skill player on offense. (Catching the ball) is something I feel like I can do very well. I take pride in that, being as versatile as possible and either catching the ball in the backfield, running between the tackles, blocking or running outside."
One of 23 seniors, White said the process of determining which seniors will become the team leaders will work itself out during the grind of fall camp. Considering the fact that he never wavered during his two years of playing second fiddle, White is likely going to have a lot of eyes looking at him.
"It's been a lot of fun and I am glad that I chose this school," said White. "It's been a blessing to be here. I am excited to hit this last year. College has been fun for me and I am excited for my senior season. It's gone by real fast, but I have enjoyed every minute of it."
And with one more season in uniform at Wisconsin to enjoy, White's personal goal is simple.
"I want to do anything I can to help my team win," said White. "I just want to have the best season I can for this team."
Burning question: How will Wisconsin divide up the carries?
Of the 549 carries given to Wisconsin running backs last season, Ball carried the ball 64.8 percent of the time last season. Two years ago, Ball got 61.2 percent of UW's tailback carries. Needless to say he was a workhorse. Expect UW to have a similar balance with its carries to what UW did in White's first season, as the three main running backs (Ball, White and John Clay) had between 156 and 187 carries and each rushed for at least 996 yards.
Biggest Strength: Experience. White has been through a lot of games the last three years and Gordon more than got his feet wet last year, thriving in the conference championship game.
Biggest Problem Area: Loss of depth. This issue is only marginal, but the Badgers are a little thin after Lewis was moved to the secondary and Jackson tore his ACL for the third time in his young career.
Final Thought: With uncertainty under center and at wide receiver, expect the running game to be Wisconsin's strength once again from an offensive standpoint. Also expect some touchdowns to be scored from White, Gordon and Clement in the first two nonconference games of the season.