Badgers enjoy embarrassment of RB riches

BY foxsports • July 28, 2012

This is the second in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 6 start of practice.

July 27: Quarterbacks   
July 28: Running backs
July 29: Wide receivers
July 30: Tight ends
July 31: Offensive linemen
Aug. 1: Defensive linemen
Aug. 2: Linebackers
Aug. 3: Cornerbacks
Aug. 4: Safeties
Aug. 5: Specialists
Aug. 6: Coaches


Rating (1-to-10 scale):

Projected starter:
Montee Ball (senior)

Key backups: James White (junior), Melvin Gordon (redshirt freshman), Jeff Lewis (redshirt sophomore)

The breakdown: Without question, the strength of Wisconsin's offense will be its backfield, which is one of the deepest in the nation.

Let's start with Montee Ball, who produced one of the great seasons in college football history last season. Ball finished with 1,923 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns to earn a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He scored at least two touchdowns in each of the first 13 games to set an NCAA record. He also finished with 39 total touchdowns scored, tying the all-time single-season FBS record set by Barry Sanders in 1988 at Oklahoma State.

Most pundits believe there's no way Ball can match the statistics from his junior season, and some wonder why he didn't leave early for the NFL. Ball said he was told he'd be no better than a third-round pick in the draft, prompting his return to Wisconsin.

Even if Ball doesn't rack up the same numbers, he still should have an excellent senior campaign. And he'll have plenty of help in the backfield.

Last year, James White did not match the production from his freshman season in 2010, but that's mostly a result of Ball's tremendous output, which demanded that he receive more carries than White. As a freshman, White was Wisconsin's top running back with 1,052 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. He regressed some last season with 713 yards and six touchdowns.

Expect White's numbers to land somewhere in the middle of those two seasons as he enters his junior year. It's very possible that White could be a 1,000-yard rusher, but it depends on how much Wisconsin uses Ball. First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada experimented with a two-back formation in spring practice that put both Ball and White in the backfield. The idea is to get both as many touches as possible and utilize each player's tremendous skill sets.

What could put Wisconsin over the top in the backfield is the emergence of Melvin Gordon. Last year, Gordon carried 20 times for 98 yards with a touchdown before an injury shelved him early in the season. That development turned out to be great news for Wisconsin because it allowed Gordon to take a redshirt season and retain a year of eligibility.

Gordon is a great talent, and he showed his abilities during Wisconsin's spring game with Ball and White sidelined. He carried 30 times for 159 yards and a touchdown. If he can squeeze into the playing rotation, defenses would have to prepare for three running backs all capable of big runs behind Wisconsin's massive offensive line.

Best position battle: Last season, Montee Ball averaged 21.9 carries per game. James White averaged 10.8 carries. It seems hard to believe that White wouldn't carry the ball more than he did a year ago in an effort to spell Ball during the long season — that is, unless Melvin Gordon takes some of those carries away.

Since we know Ball is the clear-cut No. 1 running back at Wisconsin, the fight for any remaining carries could be between White and Gordon. White certainly has the experience — he's rushed 297 times in his two-year career for 1,765 yards with 20 touchdowns. But Gordon is explosive and could make for another nice option in the backfield.

Jeff Lewis is yet another running back with some experience. He appeared in seven games last season as a redshirt freshman and carried 33 times for 187 yards with a touchdown. But Gordon seems to have surpassed Lewis, so whatever carries are left over from Ball and White should belong to Gordon.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin (Ball, White, Gordon); 2 Nebraska (Rex Burkhead); 3. Penn State (Silas Redd).

Just having Montee Ball would be enough to put Wisconsin at the top of this list. Add in James White and Melvin Gordon, and the Badgers win this in a runaway — no pun intended.

Rex Burkhead is on pace to become Nebraska's No. 2 all-time rusher with another solid season. The senior rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last year as the Cornhuskers' featured running back.

Silas Redd will be relied upon heavily at Penn State, unless he opts to transfer before the season. Redd met with USC coach Lane Kiffin this week, and his status at Penn State remains up in the air. He rushed for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the Nittany Lions.

Still, expect Ball to be the class of the Big Ten yet again. If White produces like he is capable of, Wisconsin could have two 1,000-yard running backs.

Montee Ball says: "Obviously there's some negative feedback of 'Why would he stay? He can't better his stats. He can't better what he did this year.' But what I want to say to them is, you don't know what I'm capable of doing. You have no idea what I can and cannot do for the next season. So just sit back, relax and enjoy another great season."

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