Spring wrap-up: Running backs

Part 2 of BadgerNation.com's look back at the 2006 spring football practice season

News and notes — Redshirt freshman P.J. Hill opened as the No. 3 tailback but leapfrogged into the No. 1 spot midway through the spring.

Hill, though, suffered a recurring neck stinger injury in the last week of practice and only had two carries in the spring game before aggravating it.

Senior walk-on Dywon Rowan was the No. 2 throughout spring. Junior Jamil Walker slipped from No. 1 to No. 3 but remained "in the depth" and responded well after losing the top spot to Hill.

Redshirt freshmen Jerry Butler and Dion Foster rounded out the tailback quintet.

The picture at fullback was much more clear heading into the spring, where Chris Pressley and Bill Rentmeester returned after serving as UW's top two players at the position for the final nine games last season, in place of the injured Matt Bernstein (aside from the time when Rentmeester was also injured). UW also recouped the services of third-team fullback Josh Balts, a walk-on who missed all of last season due to injury.

Spring MVP — Pressley. As a fullback, Pressley's spring was rather slim on highlight reel plays, but no running back was more consistently impressive. A physical, punishing run blocker, Pressley is sound in his fundamentals and is athletic enough to be a viable option as a pass receiver out of the backfield. He is competitive and determined and he appears to be assuming a considerable leadership role as one of the few returning players on offense.

Springing ahead — Hill and Rowan played well throughout spring. They will not make anyone forget about Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley — the tailbacks UW must replace in 2006 — but the Badgers will once again have a productive running game.

Hill has the potential to be a special player. He has exceptional vision and power, with enough speed and quickness to come up with some big plays. He is also an adept pass receiver.

Rowan just does everything right. He is not flashy, but he is a big back with nimble feet, who can make defenders miss or power through them. After two seasons as a very good practice player, Rowan is poised for a considerable role in 2006. More than anything, he proved that he can be trusted. He is a tough, determined runner between the tackles and a solid pass receiver and blocker. He has good footwork and displayed the best ball security of any of UW's backs.

Pressing questions — How the tailback reps will breakdown in games this fall is still a wide-open question. Will the Badgers have different players for different personnel packages, downs and distances, or will a featured back emerge?

Hill has the best chance of becoming a featured back. Rowan could serve that role in a pinch. And Walker still has the potential, with his size and elite speed, to command a lot of touches. How it all sorts out most likely will not be determined for some time.

Can Hill stay healthy? He would have been at worst the team's No. 3 tailback last season, if not for a broken leg suffered in the fifth practice of fall training camp.

Butler struggled to catch passes from time to time this spring, but did a good job in that regard in the spring game. His speed is as high end as it comes, so UW will find a way to get him on the field if he can prove himself in fall training camp. Butler's progress through spring lends itself to the belief that he will indeed earn a niche role this year.

The X-factor is incoming freshman Lance Smith, a highly regard player who, if he is as good as advertised, would also have the ability to be a complete, featured back.

The only question at fullback is how much Rentmeester gets to play. Rentmeester's versatility should help him get on the field. Though he was not used in this regard this spring, he can play tailback if needed and he might prove to be the team's best H-back-style blocker.

Looking ahead — Fall training camp is going to be a tailback derby that will likely continue into the regular season, with the coaching staff sorting through possible roles in an effort to find the right mix in time for Big Ten play.

Hill could become a star if he can stay healthy. Rowan can be productive no matter what UW asks him to do. Walker is still at his best on the edge, but he did show improvement this spring with his vision and ability to run between the tackles.

Foster has promise and has improved a lot since last fall, but he is still at least a year away from competing for a spot in the depth.

Pressley will be one of the Big Ten's best fullbacks. Rentmeester could start for most teams and will likely end up with a considerable amount of playing time in a variety of fashions.


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