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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Way-too-early look at running backs

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With Melvin Gordon departing for the NFL, the Badgers must reload in the backfield.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What more can be said about last season's running attack? Melvin Gordon finished second in FBS history for rushing yards in a single season. He was a human highlight reel and even rushed for 408 yards in three quarters. With sophomore Corey Clement providing a dynamic complement out of the backfield, the Badgers were able to over-compensate for their lack of a passing game as the offense set a single-season school record for rushing yards for the second consecutive year (4,482).

The Heisman runner-up still has a year of eligibility, but will be headed to the NFL Draft. Who can blame him? And how do you begin to replace a guy like Gordon? The Badgers will attempt to with Clement, a plethora of unproven backs behind him and a set of experienced fullbacks to help open holes and running lanes. It's Clement's backfield to own, but who will back him up?

Leaders (2014 stats)

Tailbacks:

Melvin Gordon: 343 rushes, 2,597 yards, 7.5 yards per carry, 29 touchdowns

Corey Clement: 147 carries, 949 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, 9 touchdowns

Dare Ogunbowale: 34 carries, 193 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, 1 touchdown

Fullbacks:

Derek Watt, Austin Ramesh

Returning players

Tailbacks: Clement (JR), Dare Ogunbowale (RS JR), Caleb Kinlaw (assuming RS FR), Taiwan Deal (assuming RS FR), Mark Saari (assuming RS FR)

Fullbacks: Derek Watt (RS SR), Austin Ramesh (RS SO), Derek Strass (RS SR), D.J. Spurling (RS SO)

Departing players

Tailbacks: Gordon

Fullbacks: None

Additions to position

Running Backs: Jordan Stevenson (South Oak Cliff -- Dallas, TX), Bradrick Shaw (Hoover -- Birmingham, Ala.)

Fullbacks: Jake Whalen (Wausau West -- Wausau, Wis.)

X-Factors

Running backs: Finding a No. 2 and No. 3 running back. Who will be the guy behind Clement? That is the $1 million question for the position, and not even running backs coach Thomas Brown knows. Ogunbowale is a question mark at this point in his career after making the switch from corner to running back midseason. While he had good showings against Bowling Green and Nebraska, it was in garbage time and his sample size is extremely small. Kinlaw and Deal both redshirted this season due to injury last season. Stevenson and Shaw come in as true freshman looking to make an impact.

Fullbacks: Paul Chryst. Chryst has always found ways to develop tight ends and utilizes them expertly. This poses a problem at the fullback position because last Derek Watt was going to play the "H-Back" position in Andy Ludwig's offense. While that never really came to fruition because of Watt's injury last season, he has practiced at both positions and gives Chryst and Joe Rudolph the option to move him out to the position, which would leave them with Ramesh, Strass and Spurling at the position. Watt has shown his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in the past so the move is not out of the realm of possibility, but the coaching staff may want to keep him at fullback to open holes at the second level, something he has been very successful at doing over the past few years.

Early prediction for starters: Corey Clement and Derek Watt

Tailbacks: This year's running back group will be the most inexperienced group in over four years. While Wisconsin still has its workhorse back for next year in Clement, it typically has two proven backs waiting at the helm. Clement is clearly a guy who has not been bashful about his eagerness to take over as the No. back, but the No. 2 back returning for next season is Ogunbowale -- who was playing cornerback to start the season last year.

Ogunbowale joined in the party against Bowling Green and Nebraska, and saw double-digit carries in both, averaging 6.7 and 6.2 yards per carry in each game, respectively. He only received 34 carries all season, though. This is definitely an area of concern for the Badgers.

The other returners at running back haven't taken a snap in a Badger uniform. It remains to be seen how Kinlaw (shoulder and hip) and Deal (right hand) will come back after redshirting due to injury. Both were highly touted backs and have a year of studying the playbook under their belts, but will have to prove that they can perform on the field and stay healthy.

The Badgers have a lot of depth coming in this season with a four-star stud in Stevenson, as well as Shaw joining the Badgers. Stevenson is really the wild card in the group. He was a late commit to the Badgers, flipping from Texas to Wisconsin after Andersen departed for Oregon State, and has Badger fans excited.

Stevenson has the ability to step in right away and contribute at the No. 2 or No. 3 running back, but will have to battle Ogunbowale, Kinlaw and Deal for reps and playing time.

Fullbacks: Watt stays at the position and proves to be a key blocker for a successful running game next season, with the restoration of a "traditional" Wisconsin offense now that Chryst and Rudolph are back. There will be more I-formation plays, which need a fullback like, Chris Pressley, Bradie Ewing, etc. They will see Watt as a more valuable asset at fullback than tight end, but get him involved in the play-action passing game with flat routes and even a screen play or two. Watt will be the most valuable, unnoticed, under-appreciated player next season.