CHICAGO - Corey Clement hates change but is starting to find out that a little change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Take one of his experiences at the Outback Bowl. Clement – a creature of habit - left one of his shoes on the team bus. Not having time to go back to retrieve it, he was forced to mix match shoes for that day’s practice. The results sparked a fashion trend.
“I just put them together, went out to practice and I had a good practice that day,” said Clement. “Why not stick with it? In the bowl game I wore two different shoes as well. I had a good game in that game, too, so maybe I should stick with these.
“I like to be different sometimes.”
Those that know Clement aren’t too surprised. He labels himself as “100 percent superstitious to the max.” During the course of spring practice, Clement was given a new helmet. After a week of not feeling like himself, he switched back to his old helmet and found his comfort zone.
“I don’t like changing too much,” said Clement.
Change has been the norm at Wisconsin during Clement’s tenure, especially when it comes to the coaching staff. He committed to head coach Bret Bielema in 2012, saw running back coach Thomas Hammock leave in February 2014, saw head coach Gary Andersen leave in December 2014 and running back coach Thomas Brown leave last February.
But just like his mismatch shoes, sometimes change is for the better.
Going back to the more traditional pro-style offense that helped Wisconsin’s offense set program records, new Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst wants to open up the passing game by having a tailback - with some size and some speed – be a dynamic threat within the offense.Clement fits that billing, which was part of the reason why he was named one of the Big Ten West Division’s six ‘Players to Watch’ before the league’s annual media days at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. More than that, it was why Chryst aggressively recruited the former four-star tailback when he was the head coach at Pittsburgh.
“He was really good (in high school),” said Chryst pointblank. “A good running back is a good fit. At Pitt, at Wisconsin, anywhere I go I think that.”
The backup to Melvin Gordon for the last two seasons, Clement knows that change is upon him again. The unquestioned number one tailback – and arguably the most indispensable player on Wisconsin’s roster – is a label that hasn’t caused Clement to shy away from the expectations.
“I feel confident but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Clement. “I feel as myself that I’m going out there every day and giving 100 percent. I try to work my stamina. I know I am going to be taking a bulk of the carries, so I have got to be prepared for that.”
In addition to workouts with his teammates, Clement spends extra time in the training room working on recovery and in Camp Randall working on cardio. With nobody around, he walks half the stadium steps carrying a 50 pound ball and follows that up with sprints without the extra weight on the other half.
“Once I make it back around, if I’m not dead by then, I really don’t fill as it I completed a good workout,” said Clement. “Nobody is holding my hand. There’s no more Melvin in front of me.”
Reflecting back, Clement said he tried too hard to be better than Gordon last season. With all the hype surrounding the would-be Heisman Trophy runner-up entering the season, Clement tried to surpass Gordon on every run. That led to impatience and frustration.
“I tried to hit the home run every play,” said Clement. “Melvin would go in the first two series, do what he did and I would go in. It was a competition. I really didn’t care about the score of the game. I was focused on the battle between me and Melvin. That’s what took me out of my rhythm because I wasn’t thinking about the emphasis on what down it actually was or playing the game. I was trying to compete with Melvin.”
The lightbulb went on in the sixth game, a 38-28 victory over Illinois in which Clement rushed for 164 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown. It was at that point he embraced his secondary role, allowing Gordon to be the star of the show. As fate would have it, Clement injured his shoulder diving for a touchdown in a November victory over Nebraska and was limited for the final five games of the season.
He still tried to gut it out, even catching a touchdown against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, but never got back to 100 percent.
“I just tried to do what I could toward the end of the season, especially the last game,” he said. “I just tried to put my hurt to the side and go out there 100 percent. It was the last game for Melvin, everybody knew that he wasn’t coming back. I just wanted him to go out with a victory. Whatever I could do, one arm or not, I tried to do.”
Knowing the job was his for the upcoming season, Clement has the look of a different running back. He’s stronger physically, having replaced some fat with muscle, and is close to mastering Chryst’s playbook. He’s also spending more time in the film room, which he feels will allow him to put more responsibilities on his shoulders. His teammates have taken notice.
“At a lot of programs Corey could have been the starting running back his freshman year,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Joel Stave. “Instead he comes here and is behind James White – one of the most consistent football players I’ve ever known for four years – and Melvin. He’s done a great job being patient, making the most out of his opportunities and right away in the offseason he realized it is his year, his backfield now. He’s excited to step into that role and be the guy at the tailback position.”
Clement has the mindset that Gordon is still next to him pushing for playing time. And while he’ll miss the pointers Gordon use to give him of what to do and not to do, Clement is ready to become his own tailback, not wanting to be anybody but himself.
“I definitely need to remind myself (that I’m not Melvin),” said Clement. “That’s why I really don’t like the “replacement of Melvin Gordon.” I think it’s the “uprising of Corey Clement.” I don’t want to sound cocky at all but it’s my time now.”