Prior to last season, Montee Ball's evolution always took place behind the scenes. After his freshman season, he was determined to lose weight during the offseason, and so he did. Then he showed up for the 2011 opener against UNLV looking bigger, but not husky like his first days on campus. Ball was just that much stronger, and from one season to the next, he increased his production over twofold, 391 yards to 996 yards to 1,923 yards.
Entering the 2012 season, we all assumed the evolution was complete. All that was needed was the spit shine of another year's experience and Ball would go from being a great player to perhaps the best in the country. What we got was a good season that was severely disappointing given the outrageous upward trend we became accustomed to.
There was an unintentional benefit, however: we finally got to see Ball deal directly with adversity and exhibit the same will on the football field that made him lose weight, gain weight and mold himself into a record-setting running back during the offseason. He averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry three times in the first five games before coming alive in a three-game stretch against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota that at the time was critically important to Wisconsin's season.
Ball elevated his game to another level while the offensive line was still recovering from whatever the hell Mike Markuson did to them. By the end of the season, Ball and his blockers were finally working in concert. He averaged 3.0 yards per carry in the first meeting against Nebraska on Sept. 29, then 9.6 YPC on his way to 202 yards during the second meeting on Dec. 2.
James White and Melvin Gordon were there, too, and while both were better than Ball on a per-carry basis last season, there was never really much question that Ball was The Man on offense. White thrived off big plays and cleaned up on some of Ball's best days, but was usually less productive when yards could only be gained via grind (for example, 2.8 YPC against MSU, OSU and PSU, vs. 3.9 for Ball).
Gordon hasn't cultivated a truly meaningful sample size yet, though he flashed enough speed in the Badgers' final two games of the season to get fans drooling. He went off in the Big Ten Championship Game (who didn't?), but perhaps more impressively, he earned nine carries for 51 yards against a vaunted Stanford defense in the Rose Bowl. He took an entire season to earn the trust of the coaching staff, however, and admitted himself that he wasn't practicing with the same intensity as White and Ball.
The upshot is this: White and Gordon have shown the capacity to be great, but whether they have the sheer force of will that Ball demonstrated every offseason and on the field in 2012 remains to be seen.
Spring Depth Chart
1) James White -- 5-foot-10, 197 pounds, Senior
2) Melvin Gordon -- 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, RS Sophomore
3) Jeffrey Lewis -- 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, RS Junior
4) Vonte Jackson -- 6-foot, 199 pounds, RS Freshman
Incoming talent: Corey Clement -- 5'11, 205 pounds, commitment profile
White and Gordon have experience, and they proved several times last season that they can go the distance if they get into space. White is the presumptive No. 1, and he'll hold that top spot into the fall if notes from this past weekend's open practice are any indication.
White had a couple impressive moves, including a 29-yard run around left end in which he left freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton grasping for air. Later, White made another nice open-field move on a 2-yard touchdown run.
That passage sums up White in a nutshell: quickness upon more quickness. He has a good top gear, too, though he can't leave afterburned images of himself on the field like Gordon can. White is also the only running back on the roster who has ever had more than 20 carries in a game (or 10, for that matter), and has proven to be a tougher runner than his size suggests. Until someone says otherwise, White is this year's "workhorse."
Expect Gordon to see a lot of carries, however, lest there be riots. He made the jet sweep look REALLY good last season, most notably in a nine-carry, 216-yard effort in Indianapolis. Gordon was used almost exclusively on sweeps, so there weren't many opportunities to see him take on linebackers head on. When he did, he did show a tendency to keep his feet moving and push piles, though whether he can do that after regular usage is unknown.
Beyond White and Gordon, the Badgers have solid depth. Jeffrey Lewis, who is entering his fourth year with the program, also looked good during the open practice, showing better lateral quickness and footwork than he has in the past. Behind him, there's Vonte Jackson, who was highly touted out of high school but was forced to sit last season after suffering his second torn ACL within a year's span. Jackson is still rehabbing, but is expected to be back for fall camp and hopefully able to play at a serviceable level.
Look again at the depth chart, and it's easy to see where Wisconsin needs help. The program traditionally prefers thunder over lightning when it comes to running backs, but this year the Badgers appear to lack a true bruiser like, say, John Clay (or Ball when he was really pissed off at Iowa). Derek Straus has the frame to be a fullback-type entity, but that doesn't mean that anyone on the coaching staff is ready to give him the ball at the goal line. Wisconsin may need to rely on White in the barge again.
Unless, of course, Clement is ready to pick up the slack. Clement was listed at 205 pounds in his Rivals profile, though he may have the frame to add weight with a couple months in Wisconsin's strength program. At a glance, he embodies exactly what UW typically looks for in an every-down back: balance. His speed isn't Gordon-ian, but it's good, and he had a reputation for bowling over defenders while putting together an impressive college offer sheet.
Wisconsin may be the most redshirt-happy team in the nation, but Clement has an excellent pedigree and appears to have the polish to contribute as a true freshman. If he develops into a true chain-mover, Wisconsin's running game should yet again be one of the more formidable in the country.