With the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year returning to his unit, one would think Wisconsin Running Back Coach John Settle would trust junior John Clay the most. With his unit deeper than he's ever experienced, however, Settle's trust is being placed in the younger generation.
"When we open up the season September 4 at UNLV, we are going to open up with the guys that earned our trust in camp and right now, I trust Montee Ball and James White," Settle said. "Those two guys have been soldiers, taking every rep we've asked them to take."
The trust factor isn't there with Clay yet because of the junior still trying to get confidence in his surgically-repaired ankles. Going through a pair of clean-up surgeries after the season, forcing him to sit out the spring, Clay's conditioning and confidence is on the mend.
"We need him to compete at the level we need him to compete at," Settle said of Clay, who rushed for 1,517 yards to lead the Big Ten and scored 18 touchdowns. "We expected some rust and came in with a plan, a pitch count so to speak, to ease him into camp and scrimmage situations. It's just going to take time."
Clay has looked good in two scrimmages for Wisconsin the past week, rushing for five first downs and approximately 41 yards and a touchdown during Wednesday morning's practice and had 11 carries for about 50 yards in Saturday's scrimmage. Still, Clay has yet to make it through consecutive full practices.
"The thing we don't want to have happen is a setback and he misses a whole practice," Settle said. "(On Wednesday), he looked like his old self on a couple of reps, but we know and he knows that his conditioning level is not where it needs to be. He just needs to get knocked around, get sore, heal up to get the pain out and then get hit again."
Settle knew what he had with Ball (who rushed for 328 yards in the team's final five games), but the performance of White, a true freshman from St. Thomas Aquinas (one of the top high schools in the country) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has allowed the coaches to have option that has big-play potential.
In Saturday's scrimmage, the 5-foot-10, 198-pound back rattled off a pair of 26-yard runs working with the second team against the first- and second-team defenses, and scampered to the outside for the 24-yard touchdown run against the first team, breaking off a tackle and tiptoeing down the sideline.
"James White is a football player," Settle said. "He understands the game. He studies the game and that's the one thing I like about him as a freshman. He's kind of like Montee Ball last year, come in and compete to put himself on the field. He plays bigger than he is, with great balance and lower-body strength. He has an opportunity to be special in this program."
White has been pegged by Head Coach Bret Bielema as one of three freshmen to definitely play on offense (joining tight end Sherard Cadogan and wide receiver Manasseh Garner) because of the ability to make people miss.
Last season, Wisconsin's three running backs (Clay, Ball and senior Zach Brown) had 451 rushing attempts. Of those attempts, only seven runs resulted in a running play of 25 yards or more, and only two went more than 50. In UW's first scrimmage of camp, White scampered 68 yards for a touchdown that happened in a blink of an eye.
"He's a home-run threat," Settle said. "Defenses will have to do a good job defend the whole field and when he is on the field. The one thing I like about the people we have is we have two 250-pound backs that can bruise you and make you miss. With White, we've got a guy that can run over you, make it miss and then all of a sudden, cut on a dime and accelerate in two steps. It's going to cause problems."
The acceleration of White has caused Brown to become an afterthought. Since his 250-yard outburst in the Metrodome his freshman year, Brown has had ball-control and confidence problems. Brown has played in 36 games over three seasons, including starting the season as the starter.
Fumbles and inconsistent play, including losing a costly fumble at Minnesota, saw Brown move from the starting job to third on the depth chart. With UW wanting to use four reliable running backs this year, there's a possibility that Brown could use his redshirt and spend the season on the sidelines.
"He understands he is in the fight of his life," Settle said. "If he is going to play this year, he's going to have to get himself together, be able to practice and show us that he can be trusted. Right now, his mental focus isn't what he needs to be. You seem glimpses, but he's nowhere near consistent.
"With the emergence of James White and the things he's done, it may give us a (redshirt) option, something we never would have considered before the season."
If Brown isn't the option, Settle has looked at junior walk-on Bradie Ewing, who is penciled in as a fullback on first and second down, over Brookfield Central freshman Jeff Lewis. Settle plans to redshirt Lewis, but acknowledged that while he's putting it together, he just adds to the overwhelming depth at his disposal.
"It's the deepest and probably on paper, the most talented, but we have yet to play a game," Settle said. "I can't give them my stamp of approval yet, but I like the things I have seen, the things they have done up to this point and they continue to push themselves every day."