Don’t expect Ball to match his 2011 numbers

MADISON, Wisc. — All indications suggest that running back Montee Ball can’t possibly replicate the masterful season he produced a year ago. Too many changing parts at Wisconsin, pundits note. Not enough touches to go around in a deeper backfield, they add.

Plus, once-in-a-lifetime seasons that result in breaking more records than Disco Demolition Night rarely happen two years in a row.

Ball already has heard the chatter.

“The position I am in now, in the media and stuff, I can only do worse,” Ball told FOXSportsWisconsin.com during Wisconsin’s spring practices. “Being honest with you, it sucks.”

Last season, Ball carried 307 times for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns to vault his way into Heisman Trophy finalist status. He scored at least two touchdowns in each of the first 13 games, setting an NCAA record. He broke the old Big Ten single-season rushing touchdown record by seven. And he also tied the single-season FBS record for touchdowns scored with 39, joining Barry Sanders as the only men to accomplish that feat.

If those marks won’t be touched this season as many presume, then what is a reasonable expectation for Ball’s senior season, after he produced one of the finest years in college football history?

Predictions are an imperfect science — otherwise, we’d all be millionaires in Vegas — but here’s an attempt to determine how Ball might fare in 2012.

••••••

For starters, let’s rid ourselves of the notion Ball will surpass his statistics from last year.

In the history of FBS (formerly Division I-A) college football, only 14 players have rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. And only 19 players have rushed for more yards than Ball did last year.

Of those players, just two have achieved similar numbers two years in a row — Iowa State’s Troy Davis (1995-96) and Memphis’ DeAngelo Williams (2004-05). Williams averaged 1,956 yards on 312 carries in those two seasons; Davis averaged 2,098 yards on 374 carries.

Although Ball was a workhorse last season for the Badgers, there is no guarantee he’ll get as many touches as he did a year ago.

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada experimented with two-running back sets during spring camp, putting both Ball and backup James White on the field at the same time. The assumption is that it means more touches for White, who carried 141 times last year and was the team’s leading rusher two years ago as a freshman.

The emergence of third-string running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 159 yards in the spring game with Ball and White sidelined, gives Wisconsin one of the deepest backfields in the country. Given the breadth of talent, there is no sense running Ball into the ground to chase statistics.

Ball’s 307 carries last season required that he play in 14 games, which can only be replicated if Wisconsin returns to the Big Ten championship, as well as a bowl game. He also obviously would need to remain healthy the entire season.

And let’s assume Ball does tally a similar number of carries. He’ll be doing so behind an offensive line that lost three first-team All-Big Ten linemen in Peter Konz (center), Kevin Zeitler (right guard) and Josh Oglesby (right tackle). Wisconsin is famous for reloading on the offensive line, but the entire right side remains a question mark.

Robert Burge and Rob Havenstein appear in line to start there, but neither possesses the experience of Zeitler and Oglesby. Burge played in 12 of 14 games last season, mostly on special teams. Havenstein played in 13 games with one start at right tackle. The Badgers also will need to replace fullback Bradie Ewing, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.

In addition to having a new offensive line, a new offensive coordinator and a new fullback, Ball must acquaint himself with Danny O’Brien, a Maryland transfer who is the projected starter at quarterback. Last season, Russell Wilson produced the single greatest year at quarterback in Wisconsin history to help take pressure off Ball in the backfield. Only time will tell if O’Brien can provide similar help.

••••••

Here comes the tough part: unscientifically pinpointing some numbers for Ball’s senior season.

Since former Wisconsin great Ron Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, there have been 12 seasons played. Excluding Ball’s remarkable 2011 Heisman finalist campaign, that makes 11 seasons at a Wisconsin program that is predominantly run-oriented.

During those 11 seasons, the leading rusher at Wisconsin averaged 256 carries for 1,326 yards and 14 touchdowns. Only three times did a Wisconsin running back carry at least 300 times: Anthony Davis in 2002 (300 carries), Brian Calhoun in 2005 (348) and P.J. Hill in 2006 (311).

Athlon Sports suggested of Ball that, “something closer to 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns should be expected — which would be excellent numbers normally but are dwarfed by his 2011 Hall of Fame-type production.”

Ball is a better running back than any of his Wisconsin predecessors the past decade, so figure his numbers will surpass the program average, perhaps even better than Athlon’s prediction.

But keep in mind Ball has said he expects to become a better all-around running back by focusing on pass protection and catching balls out of the backfield, and that likely means his numbers will decrease from a season ago. Those were two areas NFL personnel suggested Ball work on when he received feedback last winter from the league’s draft advisory committee. At the time, Ball was told he’d be no better than a third-round draft pick if he left school a year early.

“To be honest with you, I am shooting for 40 (touchdowns),” Ball said. “I’m shooting for 2,200, 2,100 (yards). But if I don’t get there, I’ll make sure that I match the national standard for running backs or however you want to put it and make sure that we get some Ws.”

Even as a sophomore, Ball rushed for 996 yards with 18 touchdowns. And if he feels confident enough he can rank among the national leaders in yardage as a senior, who can doubt him? Just don’t expect to see a 2,000-yard season. With low-tier nonconference opponents Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP, Ball might not even play entire games of blowout victories, after all.

The final verdict conservatively puts Ball’s 2012 rushing totals at roughly 1,650 yards and 20 touchdowns — he needs 19 to break the NCAA FBS career rushing touchdowns record of 73, set by Miami of Ohio’s Travis Prentice in 1999. Ball is simply too good not to produce another stellar year and too close not to break the NCAA record. If Ball plays 14 games again, he would average 117.8 yards per game at that 1,650 mark. No running back outside the top 10 nationally last season averaged fewer than 117 yards.

The odds — and common sense — are heavily stacked against Ball surpassing his individual totals from a year ago. Still, it’s quite reasonable to assume he will once again be the cream of the college football running back crop, back in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.