Following the always interminable offseason - this time consisting of a stunning attack on the star running back and a largely unexpected exodus of assistant coaches - Wisconsin still has Montee Ball, and Montee Ball still has James White and Melvin Gordon.
As the star running back, Ball found himself the subject of some negative news for his trespassing charges at the annual Mifflin Street Block Party in May, and then again in the unfortunate incident on Aug. 1, when he was assaulted by several men in downtown Madison on his way back to his apartment. Ball suffered a concussion from the assault, keeping him out of several early fall camp practices.
Perhaps that all amounts to a sour note to begin a Wisconsin running backs breakdown with, but any honest assessment of the Badgers' ground game will begin with Ball, and that needs to address his helter-skelter offseason. A 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, Ball returns to largely the same backfield that boosted him into national prominence last season. 1,923 rushing yards, an NCAA-record-tying 39 total touchdowns and a 6.3-yards-per-carry average made him a star, but his 307 rushing attempts distinguished Ball as a MVP in the truest sense.
While the touchdown totals were staggering - Ball had six games with at least three rushing touchdowns, including two with four - his greatest worth came in games like Week 11 at Illinois, a 38-carry, 224-yard, two-touchdown performance that carried a mostly stagnant Badgers offense to a 28-17 win. Russell Wilson was 10-for-13 in that game, though only for 90 yards and one touchdown. No other Wisconsin player rushed for positive yards, and while Nick Toon was on the receiving end of six catches for 67 yards, Jared Abbrederis caught one for 15 yards and Jeff Duckworth added one for nine. Ball himself caught two passes for minus-one yards, though he did add one receiving touchdown.
What that all totals is the value of having a consistent, steadying workhorse leading your backfield. Ball rushed at least 30 times in three games last year - the Big Ten slate-opening thrashing of Nebraska (30 carries/151 yards/four touchdowns), the Illinois game and the Rose Bowl against Oregon (32/164/1). In five other games, Ball also saw at least 20 carries.
In a season blemished only by two Hail Mary Heartbreaks and the blinding celerity of Oregon (not just from those chromed-out helmets, either), it's fair to wonder how far Wisconsin would've made it without Ball's unfaltering brilliance.
White and Gordon, meanwhile, are another story. After leading the Badgers' Three-Headed Monster of himself, Ball and John Clay in rushing with 1,052 yards (thanks largely to his 6.7-yards-per-carry average) as a freshman, White's gained only 713 in 2011 - and only 15 fewer carries.
The discrepancy was noted frequently in the discussions of Wisconsin's perceived lack of a certifiable No. 2 running back, the kind of sports-radio chatter afforded to teams with such a wealth of talent. After all, White lost any element of surprise when he burst into the spotlight as a freshman in 2010 while also blossoming as a pass-catcher. With the crafty Wilson at the helm of the offense, White caught 15 passes for 150 yards, a 10-yards-per-catch average greater than his freshman year mark of 11 receptions for 88 yards.
Sure, it was fair to wonder whether White's reduced role in 2011 led to an adjustment period of sorts, going from leading rusher to back-up to the Heisman finalist in less than a year. But without any true weaknesses - even his pass-protection remained superb, as it was his freshman year - the sometimes heavy criticism White faced became nothing more than insignificant squabbling.
Thus, the only true unknown in Wisconsin's backfield is Gordon - as well as the fullback depth chart, which the great Bradie Ewing left barren upon his graduation to the NFL. We miss you, Bradie. And please, get well soon.
Gordon appeared in three games as a true freshman last year, rushing 20 times for 98 yards (4.9 per carry) and one touchdown. Rivals had Gordon as a four-star recruit out of high school, tabbing him as the No. 24 running back in the nation Kenosha, Wis. Listed at 6-foot-1, 206 pounds Gordon is already the tallest of UW's tailbacks and could soon become the biggest.
For the time being - meaning until we see how Danny O'Brien, A.K.A. ACC Import 2.0, turns out - the remaining questions are short and simple. How will Paul Chryst's replacement, Matt Canada, maximize on the Badgers' ridiculous stable of rushers? How will Ball fare with the weight of continued Heisman hopes, another new quarterback and the aforementioned offseason "distractions" squarely on his shoulders? And how will the trio of running backs handle the crunch for carries? After all, there were plenty of rumors at the tail end of last season suggesting White could look into transferring.
Back in spring camp, Canada toyed with some two-back sets putting both Ball and White on the field together. Oh, the possibilities!
In reality, the Badgers could've brought back Brad Nortman, the brilliant actor and Fake Punt Extraordinaire, and oriented a Wildcat system around him. Spring camp is indeed spring camp, and Bret Bielema essentially admitted to trifling with the media after Ball and White lined up side by side.
It is easy to say - and you know it has been said - that this is Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is talented rushers with equally talented blockers and everything that comes with that. That is precisely the sort of thinking that leads to oversight, failure to live up to expectations and similar consequences. But barring serious injury to Ball or a total letdown by the largely remade offensive line, the Badger faithful can afford to enter the 2012 season with glistening hopes for their band of running backs.
I hate leaving the fullbacks as a footnote, as you could've guessed by my brief but fond shout-out to Bradie Ewing. In 2012, the trusty, versatile, just-hit-him-in-the-flat-down-the-left-side* Ewing is expected to be replaced by a combination of two sophomores, Sherard Cadogan (recruited out of New Jersey as a defensive end and a tight end) and Kevin MacCudden. Admittedly, I don't know much about the latter (I assume we'll call him K-Mac if he reaches nickname status?), but the team has had high hopes for Cadogan.
*Seriously, I wish we had the numbers on that play from 2011. Had to be at least 85 percent.