If there’s anyone who is a testament to the phrase, "Patience is a virtue," in college football, Wisconsin's James White has to be the most prominent embodiment.
Sharing the load in high school with now-NFL running back Giovanni Bernard at prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, White went on to win the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year award as a consensus pick with Wisconsin --while splitting his carries with John Clay and Montee Ball.
Now, three years later, White will have the chance to become the featured back out of the Wisconsin backfield. The only problem is, just like it has been his entire playing career, White is surrounded by another talent at his position.
Perhaps the Badgers' most hyped player returning in 2013 is sophomore running back Melvin Gordon, who cemented himself as one of UW's premier playmakers in 2012. Thanks to a breakout performance in the Big Ten Championship Game against Nebraska (216 yards and a touchdown on nine carries) Gordon asserted his legitimacy for the starting spot in 2013.
Gordon’s action in games last season came almost solely on jet sweeps. With the speed to beat his defenders to the edge, Gordon was also used as a decoy on fake sweeps. It remains to be seen what Gordon can do from the backfield, but if the spring game was any indication (17 carries, 74 yards and a touchdown) the speedster looks comfortable out of the tradition singleback and I formations.
So White and Gordon are locked in as the top two backs, but how will their carries and duties be split? Both have talent catching passes and are deadly in open space, but have never really been primarily between-the-tackles runners in their time at Wisconsin. There is no John Clay or Montee Ball on the roster this year in terms of a downhill, physically punishing back. This may actually be a favorable for first-year head coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who favor a more spread-oriented offense.
To win in college football today and compete with the big boys like the SEC, your football team needs to possess athletes with speed. White and Gordon both have that in spades. But against some of the better defenses in the Big Ten like Ohio State, will the Badgers be effective on the ground if they’re contained on the edges?
From just basic observations from last year, it seems safe to say that Gordon has more talent than White. However, White is the more polished product of the two, a veteran with the experience and talent you want getting the bulk of the carries.
Gordon’s playmaking ability won’t allow that. If anything, the two will split carries in the beginning of the year until one emerges. Neither is the "change of pace" back that has been advertised as the No. 2 running back in Wisconsin’s backfield the past four years, but that shouldn’t matter. The only thing that will matter in 2013 for the duo is if they can get the space provided.
If Wisconsin does elect to continue running the jet sweep, teams will have a prepared strategy for countering it after seeing how dangerous it was in the latter part of 2012. The question is, how will Gordon and Ludwig adapt to teams keying on the sweep plays? The same can be said of White, who primarily broke off his big runs on stretch or off-tackle runs last year.
Andersen has also repeatedly stated his desire to utilize three running backs throughout the course of the upcoming season. Fullback Derek Watt has the talent and strength to shoulder some of the tough yardage carries. He received a strong load of work in the spring game due to Vonte Jackson and Jeff Lewis being out and could easily be used more in the running game (just two carries in 2012).
Alas, White and Gordon will almost assuredly be in a class alone among UW's running backs. I’m hoping that Wisconsin utilizes both in the passing game. Something I advocated for last year was the Badgers initiating more of a screen game to help neutralize opponents' aggressive pass blitzes on 3rd-and-long.
Don’t expect the Badgers to abandon their downhill running scheme in the absence of a traditional power back. Do, however, expect the running game to be slightly different in 2013.