MADISON, Wis. — The best running back in college football last season is gone, and so the natural inclination is to believe Wisconsin can’t possibly attain a greater level of success without him. After all, what is better than the best?
Technically, the answer would appear to be nothing. But if you combine the gifts of two returning players whose talent matches up with any tailback in the country, can you actually surpass the best?
The question might sound like a bewildering riddle, but that is exactly the scenario Wisconsin faces as it continues with spring practices. Montee Ball, last year’s Doak Walker Award winner and a former Heisman Trophy finalist, scored more touchdowns than any player in NCAA history (83). He also carried the ball 924 times in his career — second most in school history — and unintentionally overshadowed the brilliance of his backups.
Now, it’s up to James White and Melvin Gordon to demonstrate why fans won’t miss Ball as much as it seems on the surface.
“We want to prove to our teammates that with Montee gone we still can make something happen in that backfield and we can still carry the load as a group,” Gordon said.
Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 203-pound redshirt sophomore from Kenosha, Wis., could be in line for a breakout season. A year ago, Gordon essentially was the odd man out in the backfield, with Ball and White taking the bulk of the carries.
Gordon was used primarily on the perimeter in fly sweep situations to allow him to run in open space. During Wisconsin’s 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game, he rushed for an astounding 216 yards on just nine carries as a perimeter runner.
Now, he’ll be in the backfield to complement White. And statistics indicate he could be the most dangerous tailback in the bunch — Ball included.
Gordon’s career yards-per-carry average is 8.8. White’s average is 6.1, and Ball’s average was 5.6. Granted, neither Gordon nor White was a featured back last season and therefore didn’t run between the tackles as often, but the numbers should speak to their ability to find holes in the defense on a fairly consistent basis. Last year, White carried the ball 125 times, Gordon 62 times and Ball 356 times.
“I’ve got to be consistent,” Gordon said. “I’m kind of off and then I’m on. The coaches see flashes. And I recognize that. Sometimes I got a little discouraged when Montee and James were out there. You’re out there busting your butt and those guys get the lion’s share of the carries. But I had to understand that as a young guy.”
White, a 5-foot-10 senior, is the NCAA’s leading returning rusher with 2,571 yards in three seasons, and he has scored 32 touchdowns. Although his touches diminished the past two seasons as Ball transformed into one of the nation’s best running backs, some might forget White was the go-to player among the two as a freshman. In 2010, White rushed for 1,052 yards with 14 touchdowns and was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year.
“A lot of people haven’t had the opportunities that I have,” White said. “I have to be thankful for that, keep being thankful out here and keep doing well each game. I’m not going to take it for granted.”
White is coming off a career low for carries, but he still gained 806 yards — a yards-per-carry average of 6.4. His biggest challenge this season likely will come in the huddle and on the sidelines as he attempts to become a vocal leader for the first time in his career.
“It’s definitely different for me,” White said. “I’m more to myself and kind of a lead by example type of guy. I’ve just got to step outside my comfort zone.”
Both Gordon and White expect to be used more in passing situations under first-year head coach Gary Andersen and his staff. White said he anticipated Wisconsin passing the ball more than any season in his career. And Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig did not dispute the importance of allowing each player to showcase his versatility.
“We’ve just got to be creative in the way we get them touches,” Ludwig said. “They’re going to get their touches from the I-back formation, plenty of carries, there’s no doubt. We just want to try to utilize them in space as much as possible, use them in the passing game. We’ll start to get that here in the next couple of days.”
If there is a wild card in the running back bunch, it could be redshirt junior Jeff Lewis. He has carried the ball 37 times for 200 yards with two touchdowns in his career and likely will be counted on to increase his production as a backup to both White and Gordon.
Gordon said the running back corps was working to make sure there wouldn’t be a significant drop in production when the season arrived. He credited the leadership of Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock for helping each player to maintain his focus.
“Coach Hammock is intense,” Gordon said. “He coaches us how he coached Montee. He doesn’t care what player it is, who it is, what color he is. He’s going to coach us all the same. He’ll coach us as if we were Montee Ball or Adrian Peterson. He knows we’ve got a lot of talent in our group, and we can make it happen.”
For White and Gordon, the time to make it happen has arrived. Finally.