MADISON – A year ago Corey Clement was thinking about the N.F.L.
Finally getting his first opportunity to be Wisconsin’s featured tailback after two years in the shadows of Melvin Gordon, Clement was ready to breakout, dominant the Big Ten, lead Wisconsin to extraordinary heights and start collecting a paycheck.
Now, Clement is a humbled, focused senior tailback who said his practice habits have changed by being “mature in the mind.”
“I believe in becoming a better person before a player,” Clement said. “Everybody knows the incidents last year. It’s all about making smart decisions because you are under a magnifying glass.”
“Last year was an example of stop thinking into the future and live in the now.”
Clement was in a bad need of a fresh start. He played in only four games in 2015 (none of them 100 percent healthy), spent eight games on the shelf recovering from sports hernia surgery performed in Germany and was even suspended a game after being cited for two counts of disorderly conduct for instigating a brawl at his off-campus apartment. He also lied about the incident to UW officials, which backfired when the athletic department to release a statement based on Clement’s untrue claims.
“Me and Coach Chryst are really talk about me changing my mindset and attitude of how I practice each day,” Clement said.
Chryst and Clement have joked that 24 is the workhorse number, which would be almost 10 more carries than Dare Ogunbowale averaged per game last year. He feels that obtainable this season after he has successfully put his health problems in the past.
“Time wasn’t on my side (to heal),” Clement said. “I’ve got another chance to come back and redeem myself, and come back for a stronger season that I hope to have as of last year. Now I get a chance to recuperate, regenerate my mind and look forward to a positive season.”
Ogunbowale – also a senior - led Wisconsin with 819 yards and seven touchdowns, both of which led the team but were nowhere where the Badgers usually end up. It was the first time since 2004 Wisconsin didn’t have at least one 1,000-yard rusher.
Part of that was the rotating door on Wisconsin’s offensive line, a group whose youth struggled against bigger, more experienced fronts at opening up running lanes and gaining leverage. The other part was Ogunbowale’s limitations as a tailback, a position he had first started playing in fall 2014. While able to get outside the tackles and make defenders miss, Ogunbowale struggled between the tackles, resulting in him only having three 100-yard rushing games.
He’s spent the offseason working on his reads, his strength and his agility, something he hopes will help him as Clement’s backup and as a pass catcher (he finished second on the team with 36 catches that led to 299 yards and a score).
“I try to be a leader on and off the field,” Ogunbowale said. “Whether the guys see me as that or not, I’ll keep building that, but I personally try to act like a leader and do my actions through the way I speak.”
Without a healthy Clement, Taiwan Deal got 117 carries as a redshirt freshman, resulting in 503 yards and six touchdowns. His breakout performance was rushing for 147 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a nonconference win over Hawaii, as well as rushing for 90 yards and two scores over Minnesota. The complete opposite of Ogunbowale, Deal is a power back between the tackles and rarely broke runs to the outside, evident by the fact that he didn’t have a run longer than 17 yards all season.
After an ankle injury cost him practically four games last year, Deal’s health and improving knowledge of the playbook will determine his workload this season with two seniors in front of him. The same can be said about Bradrick Shaw, who redshirted last season and is highly thought of by the coaching staff.
While Wisconsin returns all of its tailbacks from a year ago, the Badgers’ main goal is to develop a capable every-down fullback.
After a fall-camp injury slowed him out of the gates, junior Austin Ramesh played in nine games over the course of last season and was Derek Watt’s main backup. He was a big part of UW’s success in its two fullback packages, which made its debut in a 326-yard rushing performance against Hawaii.
Competing with Ramesh is Alec Ingold, who started the season as a redshirt inside linebacker and finished it with six touchdowns as the team’s short-yardage/emergency tailback. His debut against Hawaii went for 60 yards on seven carries, including a 26-yard run that was the longest of the season at that point, and all six of his scores were from four yards or less, including four from 1-yard. He had 49 carries last season and has proved to be someone who embraces contact and isn’t afraid to make plays at the line of scrimmage.
The wildcard of the group is Leon Jacobs. The only one remaining from the five prospects Gary Andersen signed after he was named head coach in the 2013 recruiting class (Tanner McEvoy and T.J. Reynard graduated, Jakarrie Washington was kicked off the team and Donnell Vercher never made it to campus because of academics), Jacobs was projected to be the team’s starting inside linebacker next to T.J. Edwards until a toe injury in fall camp sidelined him for a large portion of fall camp and re-aggravating that injury cost him the final nine games of the season.
With the depth UW created at inside linebacker in his absence (Chris Orr had already earned a start over him before the injury), Jacobs was moved to offense instead of outside linebacker, where he originally started at Wisconsin. Lining up in the backfield is nothing new to Jacobs, who was first-team all-conference as a senior after rushing for 847 yards and six touchdowns for Golden Valley HS in Santa Clarita, CA.
While UW will need to find a capable fullback and need to see versatility from Ogunbowale and Deal, the success of the group lies with Clement, whose speed, pass-catching ability and experience was sorely missing from a team that averaged only 3.8 yards per carry a season ago.
After rarely seeing him practice over the course of last season, having Clement on the field prior to spring break was a good sign moving into this week of full-pad workouts.
“It’s good to have him out here on the field doing stuff,” said offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. “I think that’s the most important thing. The more he’s around this group, and he’s out there able to work, the more we feel him and the more he feels us. I’m looking forward to that continuing throughout the spring. I think that’s the biggest step we need to make, because we need Corey Clement in a big way. And I think Corey needs us in a big way. I’m excited to get that whole thing where it needs to be.”