This isn't a condemnation on Clay's abilities. The junior's 1,517 yards, 5.3 yard per carry average and 18 touchdowns last season speak for themselves. If Clay continues at his current pace, No. 32 will be painted next to Ron Dayne by the end of the decade.
Because sitting at No. 2 on the depth chart is sophomore-to-be Montee Ball. And Ball is absolutely the real deal.
"He is a competitor. He wants to win," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "During the recruiting process he said he wanted to go to an offense of our type. He wants to be that featured running back. It will be interesting once we get John [Clay] back in the mix in the fall to see where [Montee] is at."
For the spring game, Ball saw the ball 24 times, ran for 74 yards and punched in two touchdowns.
More importantly, the young sophomore looked like he belonged with the No. 1 squad. Ball lowered his shoulder and took tacklers for a few extra yards. He chipped in the passing game with an 11-yard first-down reception and followed his blockers to a tee.
And when the situation called for a little flash, the 5-foot-11 Ball leapt over the behemoths at the line to put an exclamation point on the Cardinal squads first touchdown.
With Clay sitting all spring, the 24 touches Ball received were no anomaly — the true freshman spent all of spring ball as the featured back. Both Ball and the coaches know those extra reps in spring will pay off in the fall.
"Overall, I think I did a pretty good job," Ball said of spring practices. "I am just trying to make strides and help this team win in the fall."
Ball's freshman stats may be modest — 433 yards with four touchdowns — but the 4.0 yard per carry average was all built against Big Ten competition, and the rookie got stronger as the season carried on, chipping in 61 yards during the Champ Sports Bowl while Clay recovered on the bench.
Still, running the ball is the easiest part of being a college running back. The other areas besides churning out yards — blitz pickup, ball protection, route running — are where Ball can prove to be valuable backing up Clay in the fall.
Something most Badger fans should be glad to hear, Ball is well aware of.
"When I watch film, I really took it personally," Ball said of getting beat in pass protection. "The coaches told me that is what I needed to do and I did it…there is a lot more to being a college running back, and I am just trying to build on the little things and make myself a better player, and make this team better."