Badgers positional preview: Running backs

Melvin Gordon (left) rushed for 1,609 yards and Corey Clement (right) gained 547 last season for the Badgers.

Mary Langenfeld/Trevor Ruszkowski

 

This is the second in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 4 start of practice. You can find the entire series here.

Today’s position: Running backs

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 10

Projected starter: Melvin Gordon (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Corey Clement (sophomore), Austin Ramesh (redshirt freshman)

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The breakdown: Corey Clement called Wisconsin "Running Back U" during spring practice, and, given everything we’ve seen from the Badgers’ tailbacks in recent history, it really seems hard to argue. Montee Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist one year and a Doak Walker Award winner the next. All Wisconsin’s running backs did was produce even better rushing totals last season after he left.

Now, James White is gone after putting together one of the best careers of any running back at Wisconsin. He and Melvin Gordon combined to rush for 3,053 yards, which set an FBS record for two tailbacks on the same team in one season. Yet it isn’t unrealistic to presume Gordon and Clement can be just as good — if not better.

Questions abound on Wisconsin’s roster, but the one constant is the Badgers’ running game. The biggest problem could be the team’s potential lack of a consistent passing threat, which could negatively affect the tailback stats if defenses stack the box. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig may have to get creative then, but he’s got a pair of running backs who are talented and motivated to prove they’re the best in college football.

Gordon possesses power and speed and just may be the best NFL talent Wisconsin has ever had at running back. He’s out to prove this year that he can be better in pass protection and finally catch passes out of the backfield. Clement, meanwhile, will be instrumental in the team’s offensive gameplan one year after serving as a third-string tailback behind White and Gordon.

If you’re a Wisconsin football fan, Gordon and Clement should give you reason to be fired up about the 2014 season. There may be no better tailback tandem in college football.

Best position battle: The top two running back spots are basically set, but it will be interesting to see how Ludwig and head coach Gary Andersen opt to split carries between Gordon and Clement. Last year, White carried the ball 221 times, while Gordon earned 206 carries. Clement was a distant third with 67 carries, primarily in mop-up duty during the second half. Expect Gordon to earn more carries than Clement this season, but don’t expect there to be a huge disparity in the touches between the two.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin; 2. Nebraska; 3. Penn State.

Wisconsin loses the No. 4-ranked rusher in program history (White), yet the Badgers have a legitimate chance to be even better in 2014. That would sound crazy at just about any place except for Wisconsin, which produces great tailbacks by the bushel. Melvin Gordon, one of the top running backs in the country, is back after bypassing the NFL draft. He rushed for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns and an astounding 7.8 yards per carry. Corey Clement is set to step into a more prominent role and very likely could be a second 1,000-yard rusher for the Badgers this season.

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Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah helps boost the Cornhuskers into the No. 2 spot. He finished last season ranked ninth in the country in total rushing yards (1,690) and scored nine touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Imani Cross (447 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (298 yards, two touchdowns) give Nebraska a talented three-headed monster.

The Nittany Lions reach the top three on the strength of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who will run in tandem for a third consecutive season at Penn State. Zwinak is a bulldog that will knock opponents backward. He rushed for 989 yards with 12 touchdowns. Belton is more explosive, and he rushed for 803 yards with five touchdowns. Throw in Akeel Lynch (358 yards), and Penn State has three tailbacks that combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season.

Corey Clement says: "We have a lot of weight on our shoulders. We know what Wisconsin actually represents. It’s Running Back U. So we just have to show that each week we come out. I don’t really see anybody else hopefully being a competition to us in the regular season. Because I believe this offseason we will put in a lot of work. Nobody should really be able to touch us this year."