Any 2015 positional outlook story for Wisconsin’s running backs must first start by acknowledging just how massive an impact Melvin Gordon had last year.
Gordon, the 2014 Heisman Trophy runner-up, compiled one of the greatest seasons ever last year by an FBS running back. His 2,587 rushing yards were second most all-time behind Barry Sanders’ famous 1988 season, and his 29 touchdowns are tied for the fifth-highest mark in a single year.
With the inconsistency of Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy at quarterback, the Badgers were forced to lean heavily on their workhorse tailback. Gordon’s 2,740 total yards from scrimmage represented 41.7 percent of Wisconsin’s total offense, and according to data on UWBadgers.com, Gordon touched the ball on 37.3 percent of the team's offensive plays.
For context, that 41.7 figure was a bigger slice of Wisconsin’s offense than James White in 2013 or Montee Ball in 2012 and 2011. The 37.3 usage rate was just slightly behind the 39.5 percent usage rate Ball racked up in 2012.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the sky isn’t falling on the Badgers’ backfield this autumn. Sure, Gordon was a seminal player and probably the best UW ball carrier since Ron Dayne’s heyday, but Corey Clement is more than capable of taking the reigns and preserving Wisconsin’s recent history of spectacular running backs.
Clement arguably hit the hole harder than Gordon last year. Whereas Gordon was a patient, one-cut runner who used his speed to pull away in the open field, Clement seemed to barrel through open space and hit the second level a split second after the handoff. While Clement doesn’t quite have the broad skill set that Gordon possesses, he does have a similar combination of power and speed.
It’s unfair to compare Clement to Gordon, just like it’s unfair to hold recent quarterbacks to such lofty standards in the post-Russell Wilson era. But inevitably, the junior from New Jersey will always be linked to Gordon because he’s the successor.
Clement rushed for 949 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 147 attempts for an average of 6.5 yards per carry in 2014 while nursing a sore shoulder during the second half of the season. He surpassed 100 yards on the ground four times, including a career-high 164 yards against Illinois that featured a 72-yard touchdown.
Though Clement shouldn’t be expected to match Gordon’s production, he will prevent any sort of steep drop-off for this upcoming season. But behind him is where things get uncertain.
While the Badgers had known entities like Clement, Gordon and White serving as primary backups during the past three years, it’s unclear who will claim the No. 2 spot. Redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale and redshirt freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw all figure to compete for the backup job.
Ogunbowale, a former defensive back who converted to running back last season, recorded 34 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown as the No. 3 man. He’s the only other running back on the roster to record a carry in college, so his experience, however limited it may be, makes him the early frontrunner.
Deal (hand) and Kinlaw (hip) both redshirted last year and were each three-star recruits out of high school. Running backs coach John Settle told Madison.com during spring practice that Deal is closing in on the second spot, though he said in the same interview that Ogunbowale was still ahead on the depth chart.
Deal was slated to be the No. 3 running back last season, but his injury necessitated Ogunbowale’s position switch. A year later, Deal may once again enter fall camp as the projected third-stringer.
Meanwhile, though consensus four-star recruit and incoming freshman Jordan Stevenson may be the most talented running back behind Clement, Settle said he doesn’t expect him to compete for the No. 2 job. Considered by some to be the jewel of the 2015 class, Stevenson may be better off redshirting and preserving his eligibility.
Leaders at position (2014 stats)
Melvin Gordon: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 touchdowns, 7.5 ypc
Corey Clement: 147 carries, 949 yards, 9 touchdowns, 6.5 ypc
Dare Ogunbowale: 34 carries, 193 yards, 1 touchdown, 5.7 ypc
Clement (JR), Ogunbowale (RS JR), Taiwan Deal (RS FR), Caleb Kinlaw (RS FR), Mark Saari (RS FR)
Gordon (declared for NFL)
Additions to position
Jordan Stevenson (FR), Bradrick Shaw (FR), Serge Trezy (RS JR—JUCO transfer from Eastern Arizona who sat out last season), Troy Laufenberg (FR)
X-Factor: Taiwan Deal
It's hard to determine a true X-factor for this position. We can somewhat predict what a full season of Corey Clement will be like, and the potential downfall here all hinges on the players behind him.
Deal seems like the solution. While Ogunbowale may begin the season as the primary backup like Settle said, expect Deal to eventually claim the job. Coach talk in spring practice can be cheap, but considering Ogunbowale is by no means an established backup, Settle's positive comments toward Deal could bode well for his trajectory this fall.
While most outlets called Deal a three-star recruit, Rivals did label him a four-star. He was Maryland's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013 after rushing for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns. Departed head coach Gary Andersen and former running backs coach Thomas Brown felt highly enough of Deal to list him as the No. 3 back as a true freshman, a role that didn't come to fruition because of his hand injury.
Whoever does claim the backup job will be thrust into one of Wisconsin's most important offensive roles in 2015. The Badgers have recently relied on a strong 1-2 punch, and they need to find someone who can complement Clement, especially if his nagging shoulder acts up again. Though Ogunbowale will see reps regardless because of his past experience and Kinlaw has a chance to crack the rotation, Deal is the player who offers the most upside behind Clement.