Spring Game Analysis: Running Backs

With a healthy P.J. Hill, a multi-tooled Lance Smith and a physical John Clay all showcasing their talents Saturday, the Wisconsin running backs showed why they have one of the deepest backfields in the nation.

MADISON – With approximately 22,000 people in attendance for Wisconsin's annual spring game, it was easy for the players to finally get excited to be playing in front of people other than the coaching staff.

Equally so, it was exciting for the fans to finally get a look at some talented newcomers, particularly freshman running back John Clay.

If there were any questions of the expectations fans have for the Racine running back or the excitement surrounding him, a nine-yard run, in which he plowed over two defenders, generated one of the biggest ovations of the afternoon.

"After that first carry, the crowd really started cheering and it got me excited," Clay said. "That was nice to put on a little show for them."

Being told by head coach Bret Bielema that he was going to be worked, Clay rushed 19 times for 90 yards on the afternoon, including eight consecutive times on a third quarter drive.

"He said he would make sure I was tired," Clay said Saturday. "I had my mindset that I was going to keep running the football. I have a main focus that I have an assignment to do."

When asked about why Clay was the big focus on the offense in the third quarter, Bielema's answer was simple.

"Everybody wanted to see him," he said. "Why not go out there and let him run? We wanted him to become consistent in some of his paths. Those were very similar plays that we ran over and over so he would get the principle of what we wanted done. I thought he got better as the game wore on and that's what we want out of him."

Clay's hard running and physicality was a product of him being more and more comfortable in the offense, which has been growing since the start of spring practice.

"Everything is better from the beginning," Clay said of his progression. "I couldn't pick up any of the schemes right away so I have gone over film, talk to the players and coaches, worked on my footwork and everything, the whole nine yards. I got the playbook down now so hopefully I can keep it going into the fall season."

Clay, along with juniors P.J. Hill and Lance Smith and sophomore Zach Brown, all saw considerable time in the Badger backfield. The foursome rushed a combined 47 (19 for Clay, 17 for Smith, seven for Hill and two for Brown) and each brought a little something different to the table.

Hill looked fresh and his play showed it throughout the first half. Making people miss with his speed, cuts and strength, Hill rushed for 33 yards and his 10-yard run was a combination of all three skills that Hill has shown throughout his first full spring practice.

Lance Smith scored the only rushing touchdown of the day on a three-yard run that was more brute strength than his usual cutting speed. Of course, Smith set up the score with a typical run, cutting through the defense for 12 of his 98 yards. Smith ran with both the cardinal and white team and also caught passes as a wide receiver, a position that Wisconsin fans will have to get use to this upcoming season.

"Lance is a guy that probably has the best hands on the team," Bielema said. "If we throw 100 passes, my guess is he'd have the highest percentage of catching them. He needs a package at wide receiver or running back to give them a chance to win. At Wisconsin, we have a certain amount of guys that, when they are on the field, that give us a chance to change a game on any play and he's one of them."

Zach Brown, who has been impressive throughout spring practice, was slowed by an injury when he took a hit to the shin. X-rays were negative and Bielema said it was just a bruise.

So with all the talent in the running back position, how are the repetitions going to be divided in the fall? The way Bielema sees things panning out, the unit as a whole has been all about progression this spring, something that will only make everybody better.

"When P.J. is in there, he understands what we're trying to get done," Bielema said. "Zach, I've been excited because he's had a great spring. Those two, a week ago Saturday, really separated themselves but Lance, as we all know, has a flash. He's got potential to really change the pace of the game and then John Clay and what he does, a big body coming down hill. That's probably the order that we probably see them right now."


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