MADISON, Wis. — Corey Clement turns 20 years old on Sunday. But the only gift he truly wants is available one day earlier.
"It would be one of the greatest birthday presents I ever asked for," Clement said. "Just to walk out there with my head up high, knowing that we got a W, that’s all I could ask for."
Clement will return to New Jersey when Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1) plays Rutgers (5-3, 1-3) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday in High Point Solutions Stadium. It will mark a homecoming for Clement, the Badgers’ sophomore running back, who was one of the top high school tailbacks in the country at Glassboro High School in New Jersey, located about 90 minutes northeast of Piscataway. He finished his career with 6,245 rushing yards and 90 total touchdowns and was coveted by dozens of college programs across the country.
For Clement, the opportunity to show the home fans how much he’s grown as a player will be at the forefront of his mind. That’s also why he’s procured 39 tickets for friends and family members, begging with teammates and swapping for other games.
"This is one of the weeks I’ve been waiting for since LSU, if that’s OK to say," Clement said. "It’s basically my second homecoming. I haven’t gotten a chance to play in New Jersey in about two years. It’s a great time just to have my family and friends back in New Jersey."
This season, Clement has carried 92 times for 566 yards — a yards-per-carry average of 6.2 — with five touchdowns. He is averaging 80.9 yards rushing per game. In his last two Big Ten games, however, he’s gained an average of 127 yards.
"I think the more experience you get, the better player you get," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "He’s played hard from the beginning and he prepares very, very well."
Still, Clement’s numbers have come in the shadow of teammate Melvin Gordon, the Heisman Trophy candidate who has 1,168 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Gordon is averaging 22 carries per game. Clement, meanwhile, is averaging about 13.
For a player with Clement’s talent, that could lead to disappointment and sulking. But he is taking a different approach.
"As far as now, I’m just respecting my role," Clement said. "And I’m respecting his time. A lot of people work up to this time. I believe this is his time and moment just to actually be the featured back that he wants to be because last year he had James (White) with him. So now this is his time to show that he can actually be in on third and fourth downs and be the idolized back that NFL scouts are looking for.
"My role as of right now is second string. I’m not mad at it. I know next year, he’ll be going (to the NFL) hopefully. Hopefully he’ll be going so I can try to get my shine. I’m not really too selfish as to how my carries are going to go for the remainder of this year. But I’m just hoping that we can get a championship out of this year somehow."
Clement said Rutgers was the first college program to offer him a scholarship. But he chose Wisconsin for multiple reasons. First, he wanted to break away for something different. His Glassboro High teammate, Paul James, already played running back at Rutgers. He currently is a redshirt junior for the Scarlet Knights but is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Second, Clement cited the recruiting pitch from former Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who visited his high school twice. Hammock showed Clement tape of Wisconsin’s 2012 Big Ten championship victory against Nebraska and told him no other school in the country could offer something similar.
In that game, a 70-31 Wisconsin victory, Gordon rushed for 216 yards, Montee Ball gained 202 yards and White added 109 yards.
"I’m just like, ‘I want to be a part of this,’" Clement said. "As many times as I saw the hole open up, I was just like, ‘Man, I can run through that and do the same thing as them. Why can’t I just go to this school and do the same thing?’"
This week, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was asked how close the Scarlet Knights came to landing Clement.
"I think the players ultimately decide where they want to go," Flood said. "I don’t know if it really matters in the end if you’re in it with him for a little while or if you’ve recruited him all the way through the process to the last day.
"He decided that Wisconsin was where he wanted to be, and we’ve got good running backs on our football team also. Corey’s a good player. Melvin’s a good player, and it’s our job to try to minimize their effect on the game."
Minimizing the effect of Wisconsin’s running game could prove a significant challenge for Rutgers. Wisconsin ranks second nationally in rushing yards per game (338.4 yards). The Badgers also have rushed for 2,369 yards in their first seven games — 678 more than they had through seven games last season, when they set the single-season school record of 3,689 yards. As a team, Wisconsin also is averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
If Gordon and Clement perform at the level they have through seven games, Clement expects his 20th birthday to be memorable.
"If I go home on a loss, I’m going to be fairly upset," Clement said. "I don’t think we’re going to have anything to worry about."