MADISON - It was a moment most fans in attendance didn’t see on Saturday, content with Wisconsin’s 51-0 lead on a sunny day and started streaming for the exits. Caleb Kinlaw didn’t care how many people were in the stadium. After the bumpy road he’d been on to start his collegiate career, the redshirt freshman made sure to take full advantage of the opportunity of his Badgers debut.
In addition to carrying the ball seven times for 30 yards, Kinlaw scored his first collegiate touchdown on a five-yard reception from quarterback Bart Houston in the fourth quarter to cap the 58-0 victory over Miami University Saturday.
“Being able to get out there, I was able to get a feel for things and it did build my confidence,” said Kinlaw, who was swarmed by his tailback teammates on the sideline after scoring the touchdown. “I was able to feel better about certain movements. When you are in practice, it’s a lot different from game speed. Being able to get out there and do those things, I feel good about myself.”
It’s one of the first times in Kinlaw’s career that he’s been able to run pain free, not the original hope when he became the second tailback to commit in the 2014 recruiting class.
Looking for another tailback to compliment Taiwan Deal, then-running back coach Thomas Hammock found Kinlaw, a speed back from Goose Creek (SC) High who was at the time committed to Georgia Tech. A two-time all-state honoree, Kinlaw would finish his prep career with 4,186 yards on 469 carries (8.9 per carry), had three 1,000-yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns in 39 career games.
With Deal being the power back, Kinlaw’s ability to get to the edge and hit a big play would make Wisconsin a dynamic attack. Problem was Kinlaw’s hip and shoulder needed repairs, leading to slower recovery time and a longer wait to make an impact within the offense.
“I had to make sure I was preparing myself for when my time comes,” said Kinlaw. “It all stems from watching Mel first. He had this crazy work ethic. A lot of guys talk about it but you don’t really believe it until you see it. I think Corey took that from him and it rubbed off on him. That rubs off on the whole group. Those guys work like crazy studying the plays and physically always doing extra work to be on top of their game.”
Kinlaw laughs when asked about his health, a question he gets asked a lot. And while he uses the adage that “you’re never 100 percent when you’re playing football,” Kinlaw says he’s the healthiest he’s been since arriving on campus. It’s one of the reasons running back coach John Settle was anxious to use him last weekend.
“It was big for him and the guys on the sideline,” said Settle. “Most of everybody has seen him in the training room limping around and never healthy. For him to come out and have some success, get some reps under his belt, could pay dividends for us going forward.”
The question now is where exactly will Kinlaw work? Before the injury to Clement, Kinlaw had worked a few days with the defensive backs, a potential position switch that could get Kinlaw on the field faster. When it was deemed Clement wasn’t available to play, which is expected to be the case again Saturday when No.24 Wisconsin hosts Troy, Kinlaw was switched back to tailback … and finally had his moment.
“I worked with him over times and learning the plays,” said Kinlaw. “By having everything down, I was able to go out and play.”
With Settle uncertain if his future will be at tailback or defensive back, Kinlaw is rolling with the punches, happy to be healthy and playing instead of being stuck in the training room.
“When it comes to roles, it’s up the air,” said Kinlaw. “Bottom line is you have to work, wait your turn and take advantage of it when you get your turn. You have to always be ready. Coach Settle always preaches to us to be ready because you never know when you’ll get your name called.”
“I would love to play running back, but if that’s not my call I can’t argue with that. Whatever opportunity is brought to me I’ll take advantage of that.”