Montee Ball begins his first NFL training camp on July 25 as a part of the Denver Broncos. With potent offensive weapons, an offense that ranked fourth overall in yards and second in points per game in 2012, plus first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning under center, Ball has the talent and supporting environment to have a breakout year, and quite frankly, a long and successful career. Barring any injuries or other career-threatening circumstances, Ball has the potential to have the best NFL career for a running back coming out of Wisconsin since the beginning of the Alvarez era, if not ever.
One cannot forget the great career of Heisman Trophy winner Alan Ameche, the four-time Pro Bowler who scored 44 total touchdowns and accumulated over 4,045 rushing yards from 1955-60. "The Horse's" success at the professional level in his six years in the NFL shows he had the most successful professional career out of all Wisconsin running backs.
That was in a different time of football, however. What about the modern era of professional football? Since 1990, which Wisconsin running back produced the best NFL career at that position? In the next four weeks, we'll look at four different running backs who survived, and at times, thrived at the next level. Why only four? Per the table below, the following successful Badgers running backs in the past 24 seasons produced these NFL careers:
|UW RBs||Years||Pro Bowls||Career Rush Yds||Career Rec Yds||YPC (RUSH)||YPC (REC)||Total TD||Best Rushing Season|
|Brent Moss||1||0||90||-3||4.1||-3.0||0||90 yds (1995)|
|Terrell Fletcher||8||0||1,871||1,943||3.6||7.5||13||543 yds, 3.5 ypc (1998)|
|Aaron Stecker||10||0||1,526||1,175||4.0||9.1||11||448 yds, 3.9 ypc 5 TD (2007)|
|Ron Dayne||7||0||3,722||340||3.8||6.0||28||773 yds, 4.0 ypc, 6 TD (2007)|
|Michael Bennett||11||1||3,703||1,294||4.4||12.1||19||1,296 yds, 5.1 ypc, 5 TD (2002)|
|Brian Calhoun||2||0||54||55||3.9||5.0||0||35 yds, 5.0 ypc 0 TD (2007)|
|John Clay||1||0||41||0||4.1||0.0||1||2 games, 41 yds, TD (2011)|
Only four of the backs mentioned above lasted seven-plus seasons, and those four also accumulated the most yardage and success: Terrell Fletcher, Aaron Stecker, Ron Dayne and Michael Bennett. Stecker did play for UW before transferring to Western Illinois upon the emergence of Dayne, and he's a special case I'll get into next week.
The rest, whether injuries or other situations derailed their careers, have not and did not pan out as well. Surprising to see, though, the most career rushing yards by a former Badger in this modern era was 3,722. Ameche, although playing in the 1950s and in a different era with different offenses, gained over 4,000 in just six seasons in the league.
|Years Played in NFL||1995-2002|
|Best Year Rushing||1998 - 153 carries, 543 yds (3.5 avg) 5 TD|
|Best Year Receivng||1996 - 61 catches, 476 yds 2 TD|
|Career Rushing Yards/Avg per Carry||1,871/3.6|
|Career Receptions/Receiving Yards||259/1,943|
|Total TD (Rush/Rec)||13 (10/3)|
|Best All-Purpose Yds Year||1998 - 543 yds rushing, 188 yards receiving, 23 yds passing, 6 TD (5 rush/1 pass)|
|Other notes||Caught 45 and 48 passes in 1999 and 2000, respectively|
Terrell Fletcher played eight seasons in the NFL. A member of Wisconsin's 1993 Rose Bowl squad, he was drafted in the second round by the San Diego Chargers in 1995 before hanging up the cleats. On a personal note, Fletcher became a pastor in San Diego and is married to Sheree Fletcher, the ex-wife of actor, rapper and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith.
Why he could be the best modern-day NFL product Wisconsin's produced at running back: He was a dual-threat running back who could both run and catch the ball out of the backfield, racking up more receiving yards than rushing in half of his seasons and finishing with 259 career receptions. He caught 61 passes as a second-year player in 1996, along with 45 and 48 passes in 1999 and 2000, respectively. When given the chance to start in 1998, he took advantage of his opportunity, rushing for 509 yards in the final seven games of the season (five of them starts).
Why he isn't the best modern-day NFL product Wisconsin's produced: Although playing for eight seasons in San Diego, he was a career back-up, starting only 14 games in that span behind one Natrone Means and a host of other running backs.
Although leading the four other contenders in career receptions and yards receiving, he seemingly was used more as a weapon out of the backfield as a receiver than running the ball from it. He only accumulated half of the total yards Dayne and Bennett gained on the ground in their years in the league (1,871 compared to 3,722 and 3,703, respectively), as well as having the fewest yards per carry for all Wisconsin products in the table above (3.6 average).
Dayne and Bennett also found the end zone more, with Dayne's totals more than doubling his (28 to 13).
Overall thoughts: Terrell Fletcher was a talented running back who had a long NFL career. He could provide a threat out of the backfield in passing situations and, when called upon, be a reliable back-up when the Chargers' starter went down. His statistics show he could run with some success at times, but made a much bigger impact as a receiver. However, his Wisconsin successors down the road in Bennett and Dayne excelled in running the ball and putting the ball across the pylon.
Ranking: No. 3 modern-era prospect
Next week: We peek into the career of Aaron Stecker, and although his rushing and receiving stats are less than the others, his longevity in the league was based on another key statistic.