MADISON, Wis. — There were games in high school — most of them, really — when running back Corey Clement could do whatever he wanted on a football field. Gain 478 yards to set the South New Jersey single-game rushing record? No problem. He needed all of 14 carries to attain the mark.
Break the South Jersey career rushing record of 5,380 yards? Easy. He did so with five games to spare and then gained 865 more yards the rest of the way. He also scored 90 touchdowns in his career.
Clement’s talents at Glassboro (N.J.) High were undeniable, and if everything falls in line as planned, they will be awfully hard to ignore as he begins his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin. Although senior James White and third-year sophomore Melvin Gordon will serve as the Badgers’ 1-2 running back combination, the team has a clear need for a third running back to play immediately.
“Corey has big shoes to fill, it seems right now,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said during the team’s preseason media day. “We’ll try a couple young men in those spots as we go forward, but Corey is big in that situation. He has a purpose. He came here for a reason. We’re never going to play a young man when he’s not ready, but that’s the guy right now.”
Wisconsin opens its fall practice schedule Monday with the third running back spot Clement’s to take. Not surprisingly, he sounded thrilled the opportunity had presented itself so early in his college career.
“Any true freshman’s dream is to come in and play,” Clement said. “You want to make a name for yourself right away. Coming from a small town, Glassboro, New Jersey, you want to put a name out there for yourself. Put a name out there for your family, your friends and back up what you’ve been saying. You don’t want to be the guy just sitting in the back. That’s not my goal. I want to be heard, and I want Wisconsin to continue to be heard of.”
Clement finds himself in a favorable position before he even touches a football in practice because Wisconsin is surprisingly thin at the back end of its running back group, which leaves few other options.
Vonte Jackson suffered a third ACL injury in less than two years and is out for the season. The only other players listed at running back are freshman D.J. Spurling and redshirt sophomore Derek Straus. Both players are walk-ons and are more apt to help the scout team at this stage.
Redshirt junior Jeff Lewis, who was in position to challenge for the third running back spot, moved over to safety during the spring in hopes of seeing the field more frequently. Redshirt senior Kyle Zuleger moved from running back to defensive back as well.
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said Clement’s biggest challenges would be handling the workload, adjusting to the pace of the game and grasping a new language as plays were installed.
“He’s got a head start because he was here most of the summer,” Ludwig said. “The players had captains workouts, so he’s been exposed to it. Things get cranked up a little bit on Monday when the coaches are out there and the defense is trying to knock you off when in the summer they’re not necessarily doing that.”
Though it’s unclear exactly how Clement will be used, his running style appears more suited for a punishing, between-the-tackles option in the Badgers’ backfield. Clement described the general disposition of a South Jersey running back as someone willing to turn upfield and hit a defender rather than avoid contact and run out of bounds.
If nothing else, he could take some pressure off White and Gordon, who both are on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award. Gordon could also serve as Clement’s barometer for a successful season as the team’s third running back. Last season, Gordon was the team’s No. 3 tailback behind Montee Ball and White and carried 62 times for 621 yards with three touchdowns.
“I believe we have a great running back core,” Clement said. “James, the speed guy. Melvin is really balanced as well. That’s what I like about these two. I believe with bringing me in, we can add even better balance to it. You’ve got the in between, outside and you’ve got the balance with Melvin Gordon. I believe that if we contribute all together, this season could be a great one and we could break some records.”
Clement, of course, is not the first South Jersey running back to play for Wisconsin. Ron Dayne arrived at Wisconsin from South Jersey in 1996 and went on to set the FBS career rushing record and win a Heisman Trophy in 1999.
Expectations for Clement’s career don’t reflect Dayne’s accomplishments just yet. But Dayne has taken a special interest in the Badgers’ newest tailback, in part because of the Jersey connection. Clement noted Dayne spent considerable time with him during both of his visits to campus before he committed.
“Ron Dayne gave me a lot of pointers how he let the game come to him,” Clement said. “I took a lot of pride to what he was saying. I’m just going to take the advice he gave me and run with it.”
Dayne also told Clement to be smart about how he conducted himself.
“College is a whole different ballgame,” Clement said. “Not just on the field. But off the field you have to be smart, with the social media nowadays. You’ve got to be more careful what you say and do because you never know who’s watching.”
Though Clement is used to being a star, he added he didn’t mind serving as the team’s third running back while learning from White and Gordon. The two have already taught him about work ethic and the daily demands he’ll face from running back coach Thomas Hammock, who helped Ball develop into a Hesiman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner.
On the cusp of fall practices, Clement appears ready for the challenge of being Wisconsin’s third running back. And the coaching staff is equally ready for him to meet that challenge.
“Right now, we’re expecting that to be Corey’s show, and we’ll see if the young freshman is ready to handle it,” Andersen said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but that’s one of the reasons he came to Wisconsin.”