A month ago, Wisconsin's tailback stable was a picture of depth. Now, 21-year-old third-year sophomore Booker Stanley is the old man on the block.
Ever since Wisconsin's fall training camp began, Booker Stanley could look behind him and see a pair of true freshmen tailbacks learning the ropes. Initially, however, Stanley peered in front of him to see senior Anthony Davis and junior Dwayne Smith.
Now, as the Badgers prepare for their second game of the season, Davis (eye injury) and Smith (heart condition) are in street clothes. Stanley is the workhorse with true freshmen Chris Pressley and Jamil Walker next in line.
"I've been here for a while," Stanley said. "I think that I can help these guys just by showing them the way to be during practice and during game week and what tempo to play with."
"The team's counting on me and Jamil and Booker to step up," Pressley said. "We'll have to do the best we can."
Wisconsin's offense is no stranger to adversity. Not after star receiver Lee Evans was lost for all of the 2002 season with a blown out knee. Not after Davis was hampered for most of last season with recurrent ankle injuries.
"You've got to kind of take it stride, because injuries come in football," senior right guard Jonathan Clinkscale said. "We are really going to miss Anthony but we also have some younger backs and we have Booker who has had some game experience already…We'll be all right."
Stanley filled in admirably last season, backing up Smith after Davis went down. He ran for more than 100 yards three times, including a 31-carry, 125-yard, one-touchdown performance in Wisconsin's upset win over third-ranked Ohio State.
"It did a lot for me knowing that I can run well against an elite defense…I can go out and play against just about anybody and do well," Stanley said.
With Davis on the shelf for all or most of nine games last season, Wisconsin's running game was still very productive in the weeks after Davis went down: wins over North Carolina (209 yards), Illinois (307), Penn State (234) and Ohio State (141). Stanley rushed for 119 yards and three touchdowns against the Tar Heels and 119 and one score against the Nittany Lions.
Still, the Badgers running game was less explosive without Davis. Stanley averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season, compared to 5.9 for Davis and 5.2 for Smith. In relief in last week's win over Central Florida, Stanley again ran for just less than four yards per carry, tallying 47 yards on 12 attempts, adding to the perception that Wisconsin's offense will suffer without its star runner.
"Hearing that just makes me want to go out and just show people I can help this team win and that if a back goes down, you can't just look the other way and go, ‘well, everything is going down the drain,'" Stanley said. "I think that every guy that's recruited here can help this team. My number's called now so it's my time to help."
Stanley only had two runs go for 20 or more yards last season: a 29- and a 24-yard scamper, each coming against Ohio State.
Stanley, though, said he is faster than he was a year ago, having lowered his 40-yard-dash time from a 4.6 to below a 4.5. His longest run against UCF was nine yards, but watching film, Stanley saw opportunities where he was close to breaking free.
"I think I haven't really shown anybody me out in the open field," he said. "So if I get an opportunity I'm going to let everyone know."
Smith, an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last season and Wisconsin's leading rusher a year ago with 857 yards, only graced the field for the Badgers' first practice this year, a heart condition ending his football career.
Davis entered this season with more yards the past three years (3,703) than all but one returning player in the country. A bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate heading into the season, Davis surpassed Billy Marek for No. 2 on Wisconsin's all-time rushing list on just his second carry Saturday. It was his 13th carry, however, that pushed Stanley, Pressley and Walker to the foreground. Walker did not play Saturday due to a viral infection. Pressley ran eight times for 22 yards, mostly in mop-up duty, and fumbled twice.
Davis injured his eye when he landed awkwardly out of bounds at the end of a 21-yard run late in the second quarter. Monday, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said the injury was the result of the manner in which Davis' helmet slid and pressed against the eye when he hit the turf at Camp Randall Stadium.
Davis' vision was blurred as a result of the injury; a condition Alvarez said was improving as of Monday and Tuesday.
In a press release Wednesday afternoon, however, Alvarez announced that Davis would miss at least the next three games. Davis will be re-evaluated in approximately three weeks to determine when he will return to the field. He has been seeing University of Wisconsin ophthalmologists daily, according to a release. Alvarez was not available for comment following the Badgers' practice Wednesday afternoon.
"Basically what it has done for me is that it made me just realize that I need to cherish what I have, because, like, you never know when it might be my time to go down," Stanley said. "Every day I just work a little bit harder."
Wisconsin can ill-afford making Walker, 19, and Pressley, 18, its next elder statesmen.
Stanley steps to the field
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