After a year of playing second fiddle, there is no question that John Clay is the main attraction in the Wisconsin backfield.
With P.J. Hill, a three-year starter in Wisconsin's backfield, skipping his senior season in search of NFL fortune and glory, the keys have been handed to Clay, whose raw power combined with speed and quickness saw him turn in some of the most memorable running plays of 2008.
While starting the season as a true backup to Hill, Clay's playmaking ability slowly brought him to the forefront, eventually seeing the redshirt freshman split series with Hill and, at times, out performing the incumbent runner down the stretch, eclipsing the 100-yard mark three times in the final five games, including a career-high 112 yards against Indiana.
"He made a great improvement from being able to just come in and run a couple plays on first and second down to the last half of the season being able to stay in on some passing situations," said running back coach John Settle, as Clay helped the Badgers rank 14th nationally with 211.2 yards per game.
"I knew he would be a guy that could get it as long as we gave in an opportunity to get his feet wet and not throw a lot at him. Now, we expect him to master the system and do it all."
Clay, who earned the Wisconsin Rookie of the Year award, ran for 884 yards on 155 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per rush, while scoring nine touchdowns. Clay wasn't perfect though. He struggled in pass blocking and catching out the backfield, was hesitant on reading the gaps and struggled at times with his ball security.
Typical first year jitters that will certainly be ironed out over another offseason.
"John is a guy that we wanted to take a slow approach with, wanted him sink his teeth into a couple things to get real good at and that's when we had the luxury of having P.J.," Settle said. "With P.J. gone, his workload goes up dramatically. The thing that he has to prove this spring is he can handle it. If he's 50 percent now in knowledge in the playbook, he's got to be 75 percent by the end of spring."
One of the big things right now for Clay is slimming down. Playing last season at 237 pounds, Clay tipped the scales before spring ball at 247 pounds. With his goal to lose 12 pounds before the season opener, Clay knows that losing some weight, and taking his time, will be key to his success.
"I just need to be consistent and patient running the ball," Clay said. "A lot of times I was in a rush and was on top of the linemen's backs. If I let my linemen develop the play for me, things will be easier for me."
While Clay and Hill battled neck and neck for carries, junior Zach Brown was unfortunately the one that got the scraps. After starting the last four games of his rookie season and rushing for 568 yards (the fifth-most ever by a Badger freshman), Brown was often regulated to mop-up duty and third-down conversions.
Because of that, Brown only amassed 305 yards on 55 carries, but Badger fans should expect those numbers to be a memory this season. As the veteran of the running back unit, combine Brown's quickness on the edge and elusiveness with his ability to pass block and catch out of the backfield and the junior is too important for the coaching staff to keep on the bench another season.
"Because of the emergence of John last year, he didn't have a lot of opportunities," Settle said. "I know he's disappointed, because he was hoping to get on the field more. The one thing with him, he's got to prove to me that he can be the Zach Brown of ‘07. I want that guy. If that guy shows up, we're going to be very, very good."
Filling Brown's role from a season ago will be redshirt freshman Erik Smith. Smith, who started just one season at Bolingbrook High School, had career totals of 3,100 yards rushing, 470 yards receiving and 32 touchdowns. Smith's speed will be a valuable tool for the Badgers, who sorely missed an explosive, change-of-pace back in the offense last season.
"He's a guy that has great burst, quickness and he's able to move around, motion, run reverse sweeps with," Settle said. "He's a guy that we have to find a role for – to find out where he fits best, where he works and how we can utilize him for the fall."
While the running back position looks to be set with quality players, the fullback position is another story.
In addition to losing the leadership of Chris Pressley and Bill Rentmeester, the Badgers also saw senior Elijah Hodge quit the team after the coaching staff tried to move him into the linebacker position.
The leading candidate heading into the spring appeared to be walk-on Bradie Ewing. Ewing played in 12 games last season, mostly on special teams, but his most-memorable moment came when he scored his first touchdown against Marshall in week two. For the season, Ewing carried the ball four times for 14 yards and a touchdown and registered four tackles on special teams.
Ewing is a tad undersized for the position (212 pounds), but his work-ethic is off the charts and could be a pleasant surprise for the Badgers again this season, as he was the talk of UW's fall camp a season ago.
Bielema expects Ewing to be a running back/fullback within the offense.
Unfortunately, Ewing had two surgeries during the offseason and won't be able to participate in spring ball. Because of that, the Badgers can turn to freshman Dex Jones, who looks like a linebacker and has tremendous straight-line speed, and Sam Spitz to handle the duties.
"Dex has great athletic ability, catch balls out of the backfield, all the things you want out of a player," Settle said.
Although the position is thin, because offensive coordinator Paul Chryst uses so many two tight-end formations, the fullback position isn't as vital to the success of the Wisconsin offense, especially if the Badgers put Jake Byrne or Mickey Turner in motion to the backfield.
"We have a very unproven group," Settle said. "We have a lot of questions that need to be answers. We have some guys that are very capable of playing well, helping us to produce and helping us continue the tradition that has been set here."