Badgers should benefit from loaded backfield in 2013
This is the second in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 5 start of practice.
Projected starter(s): James White (senior), Melvin Gordon (redshirt sophomore)
Key backups: Corey Clement (freshman), Derek Straus (redshirt sophomore), Vonte Jackson (redshirt freshman), fullback Derek Watt (sophomore).
The breakdown: James White and Melvin Gordon form arguably the best backfield tandem in the Big Ten, and the two have a lot to live up to in 2013. Both are preseason candidates for the Doak Walker Award, given to the best running back in the nation. And as usual, the Badgers will rely an awful lot on their run game to produce.
White, a 5-foot-10 senior, is the NCAA's second-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 Montee 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 during spring practices. "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.
Gordon, meanwhile, will step into the biggest spotlight of his young career. Last season, the 6-1, 203-pounder played third fiddle to Ball and White and was primarily used on various sweep plays while lining up out wide. This season, he'll return to the backfield, and the biggest question will be how many carries he earns compared to White's touches.
Gordon played in all 14 games last season and rushed 62 times for 621 yards with three touchdowns. His breakout game came in the Big Ten championship, when he gained a career-high 216 yards on just nine carries and scored a touchdown.
Gordon's season won't rank anywhere near the best in Wisconsin history among running backs. But his 10.0 yards-per-carry average was simply astounding. Consider that the best yards-per-carry average nationally among qualified running backs with enough carries last season was Kent State's Dri Archer, who averaged 9.0 yards per rush attempt.
One of the more intriguing storylines entering fall camp centers on which player will emerge as the third running back option behind White and Gordon. Vonte Jackson reportedly suffered another knee injury during the offseason and could be lost for the season. He took a redshirt season last year while recovering from a torn ACL sustained in high school.
If Jackson is indeed out for an extended period of time, it would appear freshman Corey Clement could see early playing time. The only other running back with experience, Jeff Lewis, was switched to safety during the offseason.
Clement, a 5-11, 210-pounder, comes to Wisconsin as one of the top high school running backs in the country. He finished his prep career with 6,245 rushing yards and gained 2,323 of those yards as a senior last season.
Clement likely will draw comparisons to former Badgers great and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne because both hail from South New Jersey and punish defenders thanks to a sturdy frame.
"I remember Ron playing in high school," Clement's high school coach, Mark Maccarone, told FOXSportsWisconsin.com last fall. "Corey's probably not as big as Ron Dayne was in high school. Ron Dayne was a great running back. Ron Dayne did great things at Wisconsin and in the pros, but he didn't put up the numbers that Corey has. Corey has broken records that Ron Dayne wasn't close to."
Best position battle: White and Gordon are such different backs that it will be interesting to see how each player is used. Some view White as more of a change-of-pace tailback, while Gordon possesses more of the traits that allowed Montee Ball to succeed. Gordon is a powerful runner with the quickness to elude tacklers.
Last season, White garnered twice as many carries as Gordon (125-62), but the load should be shared more equally in 2013 without Ball. Gordon displayed flashes of his brilliance, particularly during the Big Ten championship against Nebraska. But if he can put everything together, it wouldn't be considered a shock if he overtook White and earned more of the team's carries.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin (James White, Melvin Gordon); 2. Ohio State (Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall); 3. Nebraska (Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross).
Wisconsin continues to hold the top spot, and a lot of that is based on the potential of Gordon. Don't be surprised if the Badgers finish the season with two 1,000-yard rushers in their backfield and Gordon emerges as one of the top tailbacks in the nation.
Ohio State is absolutely loaded, and given the number of weapons on the team (including quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller), the Buckeyes should put up a boatload of points. Hyde rushed for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and is the third-leading returning rusher from 2012 in the Big Ten. Northwestern's Venric Mark is first (1,371 yards), and Miller is second (1,271 yards).
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah sparkled last season while filling in for the injured Rex Burkhead, and he continued his brilliance all the way through 2012. Abduallah finished with 1,137 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Cross added 324 yards and seven touchdowns. Toss in the running prowess of quarterback Taylor Martinez (1,019 yards, 10 touchdowns), and defenses won't be able to keep track of which player to stop.
Melvin Gordon says: "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."
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