Coming off an impressive spring game performance, redshirt freshman John Clay started fall camp as the third of what, on paper, should be a powerful trio of runners in the UW backfield. But having missed the last week of practice with an ankle injury, Clay is in danger of being passed on the depth chart because the next man in — freshman walk-on Bradie Ewing — has done nothing to make coaches think twice about giving him an opportunity to play.
"When you're in a tub, it's kind of hard to make progress," running backs coach John Settle said of Clay. "One thing Bradie Ewing's doing, with every rep he's gotten better. Every opportunity he's taking advantage of it."
With Clay watching from the sidelines Saturday, Ewing ran like a man on a mission, doing something coaches love: delivering blows to tacklers instead of absorbing hits.
During one sequence against the first-team defense, Ewing carried three times in five plays for gains of five, five and 13 yards, bouncing off would-be tacklers and finishing his runs.
"It's things like that he's doing that have caught the eye of everybody in camp," Settle said.
Ewing first caught Settle's eye as a high school prospect during a summer camp. Settle watched the Richland Center native at just one station, but Ewing left his future coach impressed.
"He had great feet," Settle said. "He was probably the best guy we had in camp that year."
Despite that, Ewing had to walk on to play for Wisconsin after receiving no Division I-A offers.
"You know what happens, ‘Oh, he plays in this division or that division,' ‘I don't know how good the competition is,'" Settle said.
By now, Ewing has satisfied any remaining skeptics who wondered if he could make the jump from Division 4 high school football to the Big Ten.
And while his ability to grasp what the coaches want from him and perform is what could possibly land him playing time, Ewing has opened Settle's eyes in another way. A nice 8-yard swing pass reception for a first down against the top defensive unit was business as usual for the freshman.
"I'm probably going to jinx him," Settle said, "but he's the only running back in the group — nine guys — that hasn't dropped a pass all camp. He's made a couple of one-handed grabs behind him that could have tipped off and counted as a drop. He's 100 percent (28-28)."
How much, if any, time Ewing eventually sees at running back remains to be seen. What is known is Bielema has already said Ewing will contribute to several special teams units.
Another freshman back that stood out Saturday, but will likely redshirt this season, was Erik Smith. Smith is a smaller, shiftier runner than Ewing and has breakaway speed.
He put that speed to good use one play late in practice, bouncing a carry to the sideline and outrunning most of the defense for 55 yards before being knocked out of bounds at the 5-yard line.
"He's a guy who's come in and shown us he's got speed," Settle said. "He's a guy that can get around to the outside."
Settle also said Smith has good hands, but the freshman dropped a couple passes Saturday. Correcting those mistakes — "lack of concentration," as Settle put it — is what the coaches are looking for from Smith. If the running backs ahead of him are able to stay healthy, the plan is to redshirt Smith, because the coaching staff thinks highly of his potential in the future.