In 2003, when Anthony Davis and Dwayne Smith went down with injuries, Stanley filled in with aplomb, gaining 523 yards on 133 carries. In 2004, after Smith was diagnosed with a heart condition and Davis suffered an early-season injury, Stanley was again pushed to the foreground. This time, however, he fought through his own injury problems, struggled with his confidence, and finished with just 350 yards on 115 carries.
More than a third of those yards came in a single sparkling performance: Stanley's 30-carry, 135-yard, 1-touchdown day that led UW to a 9-7 win at Arizona. But that was the only game last season in which Stanley ran with a jump in his step, when he appeared to have the vision and self-assurance that he exhibited with regularity in 2003.
The biggest obstacle last season, Stanley said Wednesday, was a turf toe injury that flared up during the Badgers' fourth game, a victory over Penn State, and nagged him the rest of the season. Stanley appeared to run hesitantly in the Badgers' first two games last season, but he still had managed to produce 231 yards on 64 carries prior to the PSU game. But the rest of the season saw Stanley gather 51 carries for a mere 119 yards.
"It was just something I had to work through," Stanley said. "I had that turf toe injury in the beginning of the year and I worked through that."
This spring has been a complete reversal. The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder has had a bounce in his step that exceeds the Stanley of 2003. He has made his cuts with authority, running with the confidence that was missing last season.
"I've been getting a lot of confidence back in myself," Stanley said. "And I think I confided in other people to give me that confidence instead of looking at myself like, ‘man, you know what are your abilities,' and so I've been getting some more confidence this year and just trying to be a leader and try to step up and help the team win."
The Badgers will certainly need Stanley this fall; his re-emergence has been one of the most positive developments of spring for UW. In need of a replacement for Davis, UW has tag-teamed dynamic transfer Brian Calhoun and Stanley with the first team. One of the Badgers' biggest concerns in fall camp will likely be to develop depth behind Calhoun and Stanley, but the top tandem looks secure.
"It feels great because I know Brian's a great athlete and a great player," Stanley said. "A good friend too."
Stanley and Calhoun each completed sparkling prep careers at Milwaukee-area high schools in the spring of 2002, Stanley at Whitefish Bay and Calhoun at Oak Creek.
"I had a chance to run track against him and play basketball, never had a chance to play football against him," Stanley said. "Brian's a great guy. Excellent player. Looking forward to playing with him and having him on our team. I'm glad he transferred here back to Wisconsin."
While Calhoun is known for his exceptional speed, Stanley thrived more on vision and grit than speed and quickness in 2003. Last season Stanley appeared to struggle to find holes and cutback lanes, and his injury-limited speed became a liability.
With Davis on the mend and a Rose Bowl on the line in the regular season finale at Iowa last year, Stanley was passed over for tailback duties in favor of fullback Matt Bernstein. In a reserve role, Stanley ran for just 12 yards on 10 carries, though he did score his second touchdown of the season.
Stanley appears faster this spring, often showing an extra gear that he appeared to lack in the past. However, he said was not timed in the 40-yard dash during UW's pre-spring underclassmen timing day because he was having hamstring problems at the time.
"I feel a lot faster," he said. "I think it has to do with my turf toe. I want it more. I'm a little more hungry than I was before."