MADISON, Wis. — When Montee Ball announced he would return for his senior season in January, Wisconsin’s fan base predictably swapped its feeling of deflation from a Rose Bowl loss for utter elation.
For the Wisconsin running backs directly competing for Ball’s playing time, the mood was surprisingly upbeat, too.
“They were excited,” Ball said. “We’re really good friends off the field.”
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The reaction, particularly of backups James White and Melvin Gordon, speaks to the tight-knit relationship between the Badgers’ running back group — one of the deepest and most talented in the country. If there is an ounce of jealousy that Ball receives the publicity for being a returning Heisman Trophy finalist, neither White nor Gordon shows it.
“It’s just good to have him back,” White said. “It makes our team that much better. It may be less carries for me, but at the same time it’s healthy competition. When you’re competing each and every day, it’s only going to make you a better player.”
At most programs, White and Gordon would be featured running backs expected to rush for at least 1,000 yards this season. At Wisconsin, their roles are complementary because of Ball’s immense success.
Last season, Ball carried 307 times — nearly 22 attempts per game. White, Gordon and the rest of the team’s running backs combined to carry the ball 194 times.
First-year Badgers offensive coordinator Matt Canada acknowledged that with only one football and three players, there simply won’t be enough carries to appease everybody this season.
“It’s a unique situation,” Canada said. “It’s not a problem. You’ve got to spread it around, and certainly competition is a great thing. I think that’s where we’re at. Whoever gets rolling is going to get the ball more. We don’t claim to be anything other than just trying to find ways to score points. So if somebody’s hot and getting going, I’m going to keep letting him do it.”
Given the talent level of both White and Gordon, it will be difficult to keep them off the field. That is part of the reason Canada experimented with two-back sets during spring camp. The idea is to provide the most talented players on the field with as many touches as possible. White and Gordon also could split out at wide receiver while Ball remains in the backfield.
“I’ll do whatever, to be honest,” said Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 206-pound redshirt freshman. “During camp, they lined me up outside. I’ll do anything. Whatever to get open and whatever to get by.”
Gordon carried 20 times for 98 yards and a touchdown in three games last season as a true freshman before going down with a groin injury. He took a redshirt season and retained a year of eligibility.
Although he possesses limited game experience, Gordon was dazzling during the team’s spring game, with Ball and White both sitting out. He carried 30 times for 159 yards and a touchdown.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” Gordon said. “I feel like I’m playing a lot faster, stronger. I’m learning how to play better in the open field.”
Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock has made a point of telling Gordon not to buy into any outside hype before he accomplishes something in a college game, and Gordon has listened well.
“Certainly you want guys to go out there and earn it,” Hammock said. “Earn your reputation. Your reputation is not built on what you did in high school. Your reputation is built on what you did in college. I want him to be putting in the work, staying off whatever people are saying and focusing on what he needs to do to become the best player he can be.”
White, now a junior, burst onto the college football scene as a freshman when he led Wisconsin in rushing yards (1,056) and scored 14 touchdowns. He also carried the ball 156 times — 15 more than he did as a sophomore. That season, Ball carried 163 times for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns.
As a sophomore, White’s statistics decreased when Ball took over as the primary running back. White carried 141 times for 713 yards with six touchdowns. Ball, meanwhile, rushed for a nation-best 1,923 yards with 33 touchdowns on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“I know some people may want to label James as a situational player, but what he’s showed me this fall camp is he can be an every down back if need be,” Hammock said. “We’re going to try to maximize his talents to help him be the player we need him to be.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema noted the talent behind Ball would make it easier for Ball to catch a breather during games this season.
“When you’re a player at the level that Montee is, I think he has a certain level of commitment to our program to say, ‘I need to be out there every play,’ ” Bielema said. “Now, he knows, ‘Hey, I just had a great run. . . . As bad as I want that first down run, I’m a little winded. Maybe I can pop out because I know there’s not going to be a let-off with James White or Melvin Gordon.’ “
White said he had improved his game simply from watching Ball, whose meticulous offseason and practice work habits transformed him into one of the best running backs in the country last season.
This year, White can learn from Ball away from the field as well.
During the winter, Ball found himself without any roommates for this school year because of his late decision to return for his senior season, so White asked Ball to move into his apartment. The two also share space with wide receiver Isaiah Williams.
“We’re real cool,” White said. “We joke around with each other all the time, hang out on and off the field. We know when to lock in on the field and help each other off the field. Kind of like brothers.”
It is a bond that has pushed all three of Wisconsin’s top running backs to be their very best — which should create a scary proposition for opposing defenses all season.
“Obviously, (returning) was a very tough decision to make,” Ball said. “It was very tough to tell them. But they understand the situation and they know that I’m here just to work hard and better the team. They’re going to get their carries. And they’re going to make sure to produce with them.”