After P.J. Hill shocked Badger Nation by foregoing his senior season and entering the NFL Draft (and subsequently not getting drafted after two DUI arrests), the man in the backfield becomes sophomore John Clay, who showed during spring he can handle the grind of a 12-game season and be a workhorse for UW, as he practiced regularly, despite bumps and dings.
One of the major assessments of Clay a season ago was the sophomore's comfort level with the minimal plays he was given in the playbook. At times last season, however, Clay looked lost on some assignments, which cost him playing time. With the running back now being the focus on the offense, Clay has done his homework, which was evident by his work during the spring.
"We want to open (the playbook) for him," said running back coach John Settle. "There are others things that he can do and I think that he will do well (besides running)."
A power back that has the speed and agility to cut the ball outside for a hefty gain or the lower body strength to pound the ball through the middle, Clay's only problem now is his weight, which was at 247 pounds when he started spring camp. Although his goal is to get down to 235 pounds by the beginning of the season, Clay wants to be sure he packs a punch in 2009.
"Hitting (the defense) back is a way for me to get even with the defense for hitting me all day," Clay said. "It's just giving them back what they dish out. That's always fun, because once I get a nice rhythm going running with the ball, I just think it's hard for me to be taken down. Plus, I know the fans love the big hits."
Stepping back into the running picture is junior Zach Brown, who after starting the last four games of his rookie season ('07) and rushing for 568 yards (the fifth-most ever by a Badger freshman) was often regulated to mop-up duty and third-down conversions in ‘08. Now, Brown is quicker and more patient than he was last season, answering his coach's challenge to get back into form.
"I really like Zach," Bielema said. "He's physical, he's strong, he's into it. I know that everybody wants to focus on John Clay, but I think Zach brings some durability to the position. I like the way he's able to play on zone plays, (and) he's able to bounce some things."
Filling Brown's role from a season ago will be Erik Smith. The redshirt freshman, who started just one season at Bolingbrook High School, still had career totals of 3,100 yards rushing, 470 yards receiving and 32 touchdowns as a prep player. Smith was a standout in the spring, showing that he is the fastest tailback when he sees a sliver of room.
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," said running backs coach John Settle. "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, because we really like what he brings."
Added Smith: "Wherever I can fit on the field, I am willing to do whatever it takes. I view myself as a change-of-pace guy. I have to be more aggressive. Now that I put on some weight, I feel more comfortable being able to block one-on-one with a guy and be able to go in there and just attack and get after it. If we are going to go 12-0, make it to the Rose Bowl or a possible national championship, I will be playing kicker. It's not really about me, I just want to win."
The newcomer to the group is freshman Montee Ball, who comes to Wisconsin as the state of Missouri's all-time leading rusher at the high school level. At Big Ten Media Day in Chicago, Bielema sang Ball's praises, as the newcomer has been all business this summer learning the position and adapting his talented skill set to the college game.
In fact, each running back brings something different to the table for the Badgers, which should make Wisconsin's running game much better.
Fall Depth Chart:
So. John Clay (6-2, 247)
Jr. Zach Brown (5-11, 208)
R-Fr. Erik Smith (5-11, 200)
Fr. Montee Ball (5-11, 215)
Losing two senior leaders, captain Chris Pressley and tough guy Bill Rentmeester, means Wisconsin needs to revamp the fullback position for the upcoming season. Entering fall camp, the question of what will become of the position is still a mystery.
Redshirt freshman Dex Jones was thought to be the guy to carry the load, as the once high school running back has added weight to his frame and looked like a fullback during spring. After spring practices, however, it was reported by Badger Nation that Jones was suspended from summer workouts for academic reasons.
"Year in and year out, we've had great running backs from Anthony Davis to P.J. Hill to John Clay," Jones said at the beginning of spring camp. "I think the fullback helps and brings another option into the offense. The fullback is the tone setter. We got to know where everyone is it on the whole defense and set the tone."
After Jones is Bradie Ewing, a walk-on from Richland Center that saw action at running back last season (even finding the end zone against Marshall). Ewing was expected to be a standout during the spring, but a shoulder injury forced Ewing to watch from the sidelines, making him miss valuable time.
Like Jones in both size and age, Sam Spitz saw some time during the offseason and can lay a good hit. The question is, just like the other two competing for the job, is how well does he know the playbook?
Another option the Badgers can utilize is moving a tight end in motion, and the prime candidate for that role is senior Mickey Turner. Turner took reps at fullback during spring ball his freshman year and last year when Wisconsin lost depth at fullback. Working on pass protection and isoblocks, Turner has started to grasp the wrinkles of the position.
"As far as the fullback goes, there are a lot more things to pick up," Turner said. "The great thing about that is that I can focus on more of the intricate parts of the offense. Say if a receiver is off, it's not my responsibility, but I can move them up and no what he's got spur of the moment. If we're in a game, that can help us not get a penalty."
It's no secret that the Badgers are going to run the ball and run it often, a game plan that will be predicated on some blocking help from the fullback position. With a young group and Turner still learning the position, there is bound to be some issues in the early parts of the season. Even so, UW is destined to be successful running the ball, fullback or not.
Fall Depth Chart:
Sr. Mickey Turner (6-4, 250)
R-Fr. Dex Jones (6-1, 245)
So. Bradie Ewing (6-1, 215)
R-Fr. Sam Spitz (6-1, 245)