MADISON, Wis. — Jeff Lewis grew up on Wisconsin football, which is to say he grew up watching the Badgers’ running backs score boatloads of touchdowns. He witnessed Ron Dayne rush for 71 touchdowns, Anthony Davis 42, P.J. Hill 42 and John Clay 41 — all in the span of a decade.
Lewis, a native of Brookfield, Wis., and one of the state’s top tailbacks out of high school in 2009, hoped one day to follow in their footsteps.
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“Wisconsin is Running Back U,” Lewis said Monday after the Badgers’ spring practice. “I wanted to be a running back since I was a little kid. Watching all the greats come through here, it’s a tradition I wanted to be a part of.”
The problem with playing at Running Back U comes in the realization that at least two more talented players will be ahead of you on the depth chart. And through Lewis’ first three years in the program, he has learned first-hand the difficulties of finding his place in such a loaded backfield.
When Lewis took a redshirt season in 2010, James White rushed for 1,052 yards with 14 touchdowns and emerged as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. During Lewis’ freshman season in 2011, Montee Ball tied an FBS single-season record with 39 total touchdowns and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. As a sophomore, Lewis watched Ball and White earn the bulk of the carries, then saw redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon leapfrog him on the depth chart as the third tailback.
Other players might have considered transferring, switching positions or quitting altogether. But Lewis maintained a positive attitude while Wisconsin won three straight Big Ten titles, biding his time and counting on showing coaches his capabilities down the road.
“It was kind of frustrating not getting on the field, but to be a part of such a championship team each and every year, getting better every day, that’s all I could ask for,” Lewis said. “I’m getting an education. I’m on scholarship, so I couldn’t ask for any more. I’ve just been learning. I wasn’t hurt, so I can’t complain about that. You’ve got to wait your turn. It’ll come, so you’ve just got to be patient I guess.”
With Ball now gone to graduation, Lewis’ window of opportunity has arrived. White will be a senior in the fall, and Gordon has earned the right to carry much of the load on game day as well. Still, Lewis could provide a third option for a team constantly looking for offensive threats.
“Obviously, James is the frontrunner right now for 20, 25 carries,” Lewis said. “But if I could get 10 carries a game, that’s more than enough for me. I just want to get in where I can fit in, give those guys a blow when they need one, and I can come in and make a game changing performance.”
Last year, Ball commanded the majority of Wisconsin’s carries. He rushed 356 times, while the other running backs carried a combined total of 191 times. But Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock doesn’t see a scenario in which the discrepancy will be as large between the tailbacks this season, noting that each man is “fighting for his slice of the pie.”
How Lewis fits in after White and Gordon remains to be seen. But if ever there was a year for him to make a move, 2013 appears to be it. Vonte Jackson and incoming recruit Corey Clement, a highly-touted runner from New Jersey, will be nipping at Lewis’ heels soon enough.
“He’s making incremental steps to get better, and it’s all part of the process,” Hammock said of Lewis. “Ultimately, it comes down to what you do on game day. It comes down to these scrimmages and these live situations. You’ve got to win those. You can’t win on first and second down. You’ve got to win on every down, and that’s the thing we’re trying to get across to Jeff.”
For an idea as to how little Lewis, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound redshirt junior, has been used in his Wisconsin career, consider that Ball rushed at least 37 times in three games during his college career. Now consider that Lewis has 37 carries in his entire career.
During his redshirt freshman season in 2011, Lewis carried the ball 33 times for 187 yards with a touchdown. Last season, he managed just four carries, 13 yards and a touchdown. He appeared in only three games, blowouts against Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue.
Lewis said he understood why his numbers went down: In 2011, quarterback Russell Wilson was leading the offense to record numbers, providing far more opportunities for Lewis in mop-up duty.
“We had Russell Wilson — that’s like freakin’ Cam Newton in the backfield,” Lewis said. “So you’re not going to be blowing teams out by 50, 60 every week once he’s gone. We got a new quarterback. I knew it was going to be a different experience. We weren’t blowing teams out as much, so I wasn’t getting much playing time. I just took it for what it was.”
White is among the running backs on Wisconsin’s roster to have seen his carries decrease because of Ball’s spectacular success the past two seasons. White said he still tried to keep Lewis’ spirits up during that time.
“Just try and tell him you’re right there,” White said. “It’s just the physical aspect of it. He has a big frame and everything. If he just runs full speed, he’s probably almost impossible to tackle. I just told him, ‘You have all the physical abilities. You just come out here, play physical, it’s going to be hard to stop you.’ ”
Lewis is simply hoping he earns that opportunity — to finally follow in the touchdown-scoring footsteps of the players he grew up idolizing.
“You’ve just got to be positive,” Lewis said. “The time will come. I know God’s got a plan for me, so you’ve just got to be patient, and hopefully I’ll get on the field this fall.”