The Wisconsin running back and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year had 123 yards and two touchdowns on 17 attempts in a 41-21 victory over UNLV on Saturday.
It was Clay’s seventh straight 100-yard game dating to last season, but despite the measure of consistency, Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor picked up the preseason nod as the conference’s biggest offensive star.
“I need to prove myself even more. I need to leave no doubts in people’s minds,” Clay said.
The Badgers moved up one spot in the poll to No. 11 on Tuesday headed into Saturday’s home game against San Jose State.
Last year, Clay did most of his work on bad ankles that each needed offseason surgery, running for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns. He landed on several top watch lists—including the Walter Camp Award for national player of the year and the Doak Walker Award for best running back—but the only All-American nod he received came from Playboy magazine.
“I guess that’s a prestigious award,” starting left guard John Moffitt quipped, quickly adding. “I have yet to see the issue.”
Clay believes he’s got plenty of doubters.
His fluctuating weight can be overstated—anywhere from 250 pounds to 265. The ankles still take time to warm up and he took criticism for his demeanor after poor performances last year. He’s had to deal with more hype as the biggest threat on a team with high expectations.
“We’ve put in a lot of time with it. I think we did some nice things before the Big Ten meetings and tried to educate him on how things sound when he comes across,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “If there’s things we can help him out with, we’ll critique him and move ourselves forward. But you know, for the most part, I’ve liked how he’s handled it.”
Clay is not a vocal leader, instead letting his experience and strength speak for his game. Against the Rebels, he took his very first carry 18 yards and later was dragging Rebels defensive back Mike Grant several yards. Clay’s teammates on the offensive line say even though he rarely raises his voice, he’s determined to succeed.
“He always takes care of us and mentions us. You just enjoy blocking for him, not just for his ability, but for who he is because he appreciates and gives credits to us,” Moffitt said.
Despite the accolades, Clay downplays them as something that’s a reflection on the team and the line, not his ability.
“They do the dirty work in the trenches for me to get the yards that I get and the touchdowns,” he said. “Without them, none of that would be possible.”
Bielema wants to see more from the junior who came to Wisconsin as a state prep hero. The Badgers’ power running attack also includes sophomore Montee Ball and freshman James White, and Wisconsin will continue to rotate all three, but Clay has been through the rigors of the Big Ten twice by battering opponents.
“Last year, I had the same concept, but this year just after the ankle surgeries people just really doubt me,” Clay said. “(They) are saying I’m not in shape.”
That’s true. But it’s something even Bielema acknowledges for the back who weighed in most recently at 252 pounds.
“What I’m excited about is I don’t think he’s where he needs to be physically yet, but to me he looks faster than he did a year ago on certain plays,” the coach said.
The biggest measure of Clay’s growth came last year, Bielema said. Early in the year, Clay shunned the media after three fumbles in an ugly win over Wofford, but faced reporters following a tough late-season loss to Northwestern that cost the Badgers a better bowl game.
“I encouraged him to go out and speak, and he did, and we moved past that day,” Bielema said. “It’s a growing process. I mean, if I had gone over as a head coach after the Wofford game and said, ‘Hey, you need to go out and do it,’ but I kind of left him alone, because I just wanted him to make his own decisions.”
Clay is doing just that, deciding this year that it’s his time to show his excellent season last year was no fluke.
“With this offensive line I have and what they are capable of doing, the sky’s the limit,” he said.