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Junior running back sits at head table

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Benjamin Worgull
August 4, 2010
— Often typical of his style, Bret Bielema went against the grain for the Big Ten Football Media Days.

While being permitted to bring three players to the annual event at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, the University of Wisconsin coach waved a bit from the senior tradition. Bielema, of course, brought senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, along with senior safety Jay Valai.


But when it came to his third pick, there was no way the fifth-year head coach could leave dazzling junior tailback John Clay at home.


“I joked around wanting to have a better relationship with the media, but he’s the reigning Big Ten (Offensive) Player of the Year,” Bielema said. “You guys want to talk to him more so than Billy Nagy. I wanted to give him the forum because we have put him in that position (for success), but he has done it.”


Clay won the right to represent Wisconsin at the two-day press conference based on his monster sophomore season. Leading the Big Ten and finishing eighth in the country with 1,517 rushing yards, Clay averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns, becoming just the third Wisconsin player to win the Big Ten’s postseason award.


How ironic, though, that Clay, who announced in December his intentions to return for his junior season, was not selected as the Big Ten’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year. That honor went to Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor for the second straight year, as the Buckeyes were picked by the media to finish first, just ahead of Iowa and Wisconsin.


“I think (that’s) because Ohio State is picked to be one dominant teams, and he is probably the guy that makes them go,” Bielema said in explaining Pryor’s selection. “I’m glad it was him. I’m glad it wasn’t John. John’s got enough things on his plate with the Heisman talk, (but) I like the way he’s handling it.”


Clay is handling it the way Ron Dayne, the last Wisconsin running back to win the Heisman, did—with humbleness.


Bielema made sure Clay knew what he was in for by inviting the former Racine Park High School all-state star and his parents into his office for a meeting in January. They talked about the hype, expectations, the NFL and how to handle those situations.


“It was good that I got a chance to sit down and talk to coach ‘B’ about that,” Clay said. “Previously, I didn’t know anything about that whole Heisman talk and getting bombarded with all these questions.


“Sitting down and getting a chance to listen to the information and getting a chance to pick his brain, I felt confident afterward.”


The motivation on Clay’s shoulders was evident by what Bielema described as an intense summer of working out. Held up on crutches after duel ankle surgery during the offseason, Clay’s weight ballooned up to 270 pounds—20 more than the 2009 season.


Clay, now at 225, plans to lose five more pounds before the season. But he wants to make it interesting.


“I find (people asking me about my weight) hilarious,” Clay said. “Sitting down and talking with coach (Paul) Chryst, he told me to make up a whole bunch of numbers.


“He told me I should say I lost 10 pounds, and that I’m at a solid 285.’’ Clay said of the advice from the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. “I feel good at 250, (and) my ankles feel great. Planting on the ground hard and making cuts is a lot easier.”


Clay, according to Bielema, has become a more complete player. Admitting to not knowing how good Clay would be as a running back when the Badgers first started recruiting him, the UW coach says his star tailback brings a buzz to the air and energy to a practice.


More importantly, Clay is bringing a buzz to Wisconsin’s offense.


“He knows all the audibles and checks,” Bielema said. “His first year, there was no way we put him in some of the situations we did last year. He took pride in that.”


And now…


“His body is stronger, bigger and faster than it was,’’ the coach said. “John Clay is a big human being, is naturally gifted and can handle the work load.”


And there definitely is work ahead as the Badgers aim to deliver on the high expectations for them after last year’s promising 10-3 season.



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