Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
With the Badgers opening spring practice over the weekend, James White and Melvin Gordon returned to the field as Wisconsin's two feature backs. With Montee Ball gone for the NFL, how will Wisconsin's offense survive?
It was not as if he didn't recognize how Ball, owner of 5,140 career rushing yards, had often single-handedly carried the Wisconsin offense in 2012, the follow-up act to a historic 2011 campaign that earned him a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist. It was rather that Gordon knew what he and senior tailback James White were capable of. Both were confident there would be no reduction in the Badgers' backfield production in the near future.
"We know Wisconsin runs the ball and we don't want it to drop when we're that guy," Gordon said. "We don't want it to fall out on us, so we hold that with pride, our coach holds that with pride and the way we work, we won't drop the ball. We got it."
Music blaring from a rolling box of speakers on the sideline for all two hours of the year's first spring practice, their optimism coalesced with the light-hearted energy that seemed to fill the McClain Center. And that kind of confidence in the future may be warranted for an offense that has two proven backs, with redshirt junior Jeff Lewis keeping his legs fresh as Wisconsin's third option.
As dangerous as it is to make snap judgments from a practice with limited contact and no pads, White and Gordon flashed through holes and showed promising speed in the 11-on-11 drills that closed out practice. Both made it deep into defensive territory with regularity before a tackler -- who was not allowed to initiate any real contact -- could lay a hand on them.
So what exactly is the rivalry like between the ripened veteran and the flashy new star of the Wisconsin backfield? It may be best compared to the rivalry between White and Ball before the 2011 season, the two close friends off the field and respectfully competitive on it.
"[We're] like best friends, I bonded with him and Montee real well and we're staying in the same apartment building, so I'm always up there playing video games or whatnot," Gordon said. "So we're real cool, but we know on the field it does get competitive. James wants the starting spot, feels like it's his time and I want to make a name for myself."
Andersen has made it clear he will keep the foundation of UW's pro-style offense intact, but White and Gordon have the speed around the edge to escape the hands of diving defenders. If White's word holds true, the Badgers will continue to pound the ball up the middle. But as Gordon proved with the incredibly effective jet sweeps Wisconsin experimented with last year, it would almost be a crime to not let him use his speed on the edge.
The senior tailback said he added quickness through agility drills this weekend, while Gordon focused his post-Rose Bowl effort on his one-step cutbacks and lowering his pad level to be a more powerful runner when he breaks through the hole. White, who stands two inches shorter than his backfield companion, has also shown he can be a receiving threat with 32 career receptions and has served as a valuable return man for Wisconsin.
Gordon lacks similar credentials, but White sees such potential in the sophomore.
"I think they're pretty similar," White said of how the tandem's running styles compare. "We both can do a little bit of everything -- catch the ball in the backfield, we could block, we could run with power, run with speed. I think we have a lot more speed in the backfield for me, [Gordon] and Jeff, as well."
As crazy as it may sound, together the two have a solid chance at equaling if not surpassing the production of Ball, who compiled 1,800-plus rushing yards in each of his final two years. Long the backup and never the feature back in Wisconsin's offense, White still has more than 2,500 career yards and averaged a solid 6.4 yards per carry in 2012.
Gordon has ridiculous speed for a man who stands at 6-foot-1, and his performance in the Big Ten Championship Game (nine carries for 216 yards) left every Badger fan's mind racing to comprehend the kinds of numbers he could post with additional experience. With the rest of a spring season and fall camp still ahead, one of the two may begin to separate himself from the other, a la Ball in 2011.
Still, Andersen was more than impressed with what he saw from his backs in his first practice.
"I'm excited to be able to see them grow throughout spring and put them in a position to build the offense around them, and get the offensive line and the tight ends and fullbacks all firing on the same cylinder to get some creases for them," Andersen said. "Because I know one thing, I'm standing back there today, when those two kids hit that hole and there's a crease, it's pretty quick coming there."
Even quarterback Joel Stave assured reporters there would not be hangover from Ball's departure. Wisconsin's reign as a factory of backfield talent that acts as the offensive centerpiece is in no threat of disappearing, despite the fact that a fresh face has taken over the program.
If only Ball could somehow get a sixth year of eligibility. Only then could Andersen be completely confident he had another stable of backs ready to guide the Badgers to a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.
"I wish they were all three here," he said. "That'd be perfect."