Wisconsin Badgers ready for life after Montee Ball
MADISON—The loss of Montee Ball cannot be overstated.
A second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Ball left Wisconsin with an NCAA-record 83 touchdowns and 5,140 rushing yards, the No. 2 mark in program history.
Running backs coach Thomas Hammock knows the time for sentimentality is over, and his task is to ensure UW, which opens camp Monday, does not miss Ball this season.
The players with the talent and experience to fill that void are senior James White and redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon.
“I expect them to go out there and perform like they played football before,” Hammock said. “I expect them to be better.
“They've got to be consistent, consistently good week in and week out, for 13 or 14 straight weeks. I am excited about their development. I'm excited about the competition.
“I'm excited about how they are going about their business and trying to be the guy.”
White was overshadowed by Ball in each of the last two seasons after being named Big Ten freshman of the year in 2010.
Nevertheless, he enters the season with impressive overall numbers. He has 2,571 rushing yards, the No. 2 mark nationally among returning backs. He trails only Silas Redd of USC with 2,583 yards.
White has rushed for 32 touchdowns, and his overall average of 6.1 yards per carry is the No. 1 mark in program history.
White became a more decisive runner between the tackles last season, when he averaged 6.4 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns.
His goals for 2013?
“I want to be a more physical player, running with the football and in pass protection,” he said. “And I want to be more of a leader. We have a lot of seniors, but I feel I can step up vocally.”
Ball said without hesitation that Gordon was the most physically gifted runner on the UW roster last season.
Gordon carried the ball just 62 times last season, with his signature play a jet sweep that destroyed Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Gordon averaged 10.0 yards per carry.
The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder will be asked to run more often between the tackles this season.
Hammock scoffed when asked if Gordon was prepared to handle the pounding on the inside.
“People bring that up all the time, and I don't quite understand it,” he said, noting Gordon carried 30 times for 159 yards in the 2012 spring game. “It wasn't jet sweeps. That doesn't concern me. He runs between the tackles every day in practice.
“Just because he hasn't had an opportunity to do it in the game does not mean he isn't ready for that moment.
“His focus this year is to be back there 7 yards deep and be the guy that the other 105 guys can look at and say: 'We depend on that guy.'”
UW will need more than White and Gordon to make a run at the Big Ten title in 2013.
The Badgers' No. 3 back has rushed for at least 250 yards three times in the last four seasons, with the high-water mark coming in 2010, when Ball finished with 996 yards.
With Vonte Jackson (knee) out for the season and Jeff Lewis moved to safety, the No. 1 candidate to be the third tailback is Corey Clement, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound freshman from Glassboro, N.J.
Clement, more of a powerful runner than a breakaway threat, rushed for 2,323 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. He left Glassboro High School with 6,245 rushing yards and 90 total touchdowns.
“Corey is going to get a shot,” head coach Gary Andersen said. “Corey had a very good high school career. Highly recruited and has been there all summer, so we'll see where he is.
“We need a third one. And I don't want it to be Derek Watt. I want the fullbacks and tight ends to be able to play their spot, focus on their spot and not worry about being a third tailback.”
White and Gordon, who should give UW the No. 1 tailback tandem in the Big Ten, understand the magnitude of the challenge they face with Ball in the NFL.
“When a good player leaves at that position, that is human nature,” Gordon said, when asked if he understood why observers might expect a drop-off in production with Ball gone. “Me and James understand that. Our whole group understands that.
“We're just going to go out and show people that we can handle the workload.”