The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Clay, just the third Badger to win that award and the sixth sophomore, rushed for 1,517 yards to lead the Big Ten and rank eighth in the country. Clay averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns. More importantly, Clay was able to withstand the rigors of a full Big Ten season without suffering a lingering injury, handled the brunt of the workload and never wore down.
Although he didn't participate in spring drills, many inside the program think Clay will be better than ever, especially since he is playing with two new ankles.
Plagued with ankle problems since the seventh grade when he suffered a fractured tibia in his left ankle, Clay had surgery on that ankle on January 7, a procedure that removed a rouge piece of bone from his ankle. He will have surgery on the right one — which has also given him problems — on March 25, which will sideline him for the spring.
"The thing that excites me about his injury is I think you're going to see an even better John Clay down the road," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "The issues he had, I think, are going to give him a lot of relief and allow him to be an even better football player."
Clay missed parts of summer conditioning drills last season and Bielema thought that him not participating caused him to get off to a slow start, not fully hitting his stride until the conference season.
"I am looking forward to seeing myself play without pain for the first time in my career, just feeling good about my ankles," said Clay, who looked physically intimidating sitting at his table at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The Badgers averaged 31.8 points per game last season, their second-highest average of the decade and totaled more than 200 yards on the ground four times against Big Ten competition. Being the competitor that he though, Clay pointed out that in losses to Iowa and Northwestern, the Badger ground attack gained less than 100 yards.
With Clay spending extra time watching tapes and studying his playbook, the spring provides a great opportunity for sophomore Montee Ball to add to his expanding repertoire. Despite missing the first four games (dealing with illness and a family death), Ball was an important piece of UW's running game down the stretch, as 328 of his 391 yards came in the final five games, including a 115-yard performance at Indiana.
Ball, who should open the fall as the No.2 back, is another physical presence, able to attack the gap and has some speed. Still, Ball spent the majority of the winter and summer adding more muscle and dropping some weight from his frame. Registering 236 pounds, Ball's speed and durability has increased, which hopefully lead to his continued health.
"Before, I was a bruiser," Ball said during the spring. "Now, I still want to be a bruiser because I know I still can, but I want to try and make more people miss. That's what the coaches tell me what I need to do and that's for sure what I need to do."
With Clay out, the added reps also were a benefit to Zach Brown, who had been a man missing in action since a super freshman season. Since Brown's 250-yard outburst in the Metrodome, Brown has been an afterthought. He was the third-string back behind Clay and P.J. Hill two seasons ago. He outperformed Clay during fall camp to earn the starting spot last season, but fumbles and inconsistencies relegated him to a third-down back, finishing the year with just 292 yards.
"Definitely was a tough year," Brown said. "This is a team game. I had my troubles but I felt I rebounded in the end and played good. It was great to see John and Montee come together, carry the load and take this team where it needed to go. I was more of the third-down back and I needed to be effective with that position. If it was good for the team, it was good for me. Whatever helped us get where we needed to go."
Now entering his final season, Brown is looking to get back to his old ways and contribute in the backfield. Brown has added weight, speed and confidence to his repertoire, all of which was on display during spring camp. Brown will certainly be serviceable this season and can step in if needed.
The moment he steps out on to the field, incoming freshman James White will remind fans of Ball in terms of size and strength. He's not quite as tall as UW's sophomore tailback, but White is extremely powerful, which he has to be to put up the kind of numbers he did in the Florida's 5A division for St. Thomas Aquinas.
He has excellent speed, can hit the hole strong between the tackles and can be a weapon in the passing game. White reminds the coaching staff of what Lance Smith was and what they hoped Erik Smith was going to be – a change of pace back that can rip off a big run at any moment. Throw in the fact that he's a good blocker in pass protection and you can see why the coaching staff was so excited to get his commitment. Don't be surprised if he is on the field in some capacity.
Like White, Brookfield Center freshman Jeff Lewis is a solid change-of-pace back, being able to hit the outside with his 4.5 40-yard speed or lower his shoulders and deliver a blow to an unsuspecting defensive back. Even to the casual observer, it's easy to see the changes in Lewis' game if you compare his junior film with his senior film. He's quicker to the gap and he's put on some weight to make him a harder target to tackle. More importantly, he's still speedy, a big reason why he could see some playing time early in his career.
The likely scenario
Behind the running of Clay, UW led the Big Ten and ranked 15th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 203.9 yards per game on the ground. The Badgers were 10-0 in 2009 when rushing for at least 150 yards. Why deviate from that game plan?
Clay will get the majority of carries in an offense this season that is built to run. All five offensive linemen are back and the line has plenty of depth, as do the running backs. If Clay needs a rest on his way to a Heisman Trophy push, Ball can certainly come in and carry the load for a series. Brown and White are options, as well, out of the backfield. I can't see Lewis playing this season with the depth at the position but when Brown graduates and if Clay goes pro, he'll be right there in the mix.