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Corey Clement, Wisconsin running backs ready for their 'shine'

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The running back tradition at Wisconsin is strong, and now in the hands (and legs) of Corey Clement. For the junior, it's a moment he's been waiting for since he came to Madison.

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Corey Clement takes his seat atop his podium and looks out at the microphones, TV cameras and faces surrounding him. Like he's taking a handoff from quarterback Joel Stave in front of 80,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium, all eyes are pinned on him. Then the questions come pouring -- and most of them aren't even about him, but rather how he could live up to the precedent set before him.

How do you live up to the guys that came before you? How do you handle the pressure? What did those guys teach you?

The answer? Simple.

"I can only be Corey Clement."

Clement, 20, has never started a game at the college level, but his teammates and coaches selected him to be one of Wisconsin's three representatives in late July at Big Ten media days in Chicago. The junior from Glassboro, N.J., is the next heir to the throne of Badgers feature running backs, the scion of the long-running, cardinal red-and-white lineage that includes Brent Moss, Anthony Davis, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and, of course, the perennially revered Ron Dayne.

As the throng of quote-seeking reporters begins to grow around Clement's podium, it becomes increasingly clear that, to them, he isn't just Corey Clement. As it is for every incumbent starting running back at Wisconsin, the shadows of the previous greats linger overhead.

Outwardly, Clement flashes that million-dollar smile, with his remarkable poise and confidence made even more apparent by his black suit and earrings dangling from both lobes. But inwardly -- though, to be sure, there's no lack of self-confidence -- something else has to be going on.

Here's a man who obliged his time as the understudy to Melvin Gordon and James White for two seasons finally with the keys to the Badgers' ground-and-pound ignition -- or, as he would put it, getting his shine -- at the Big Ten's largest media event of the season, and there are as many questions about the rushers he backed up as there are about himself and the current Wisconsin team.

Unfair or just part of the role? Regardless, Clement pays his respects to the past and once again delivers the line that he hopes will define his season.

"I can only be Corey Clement."

****

Through two seasons, Clement has rushed for 1,496 yards on 214 carries. He was the Robin to the Heisman Trophy runner-up Gordon's Batman last season. In 2013, he was a wide-eyed freshman sifting through each and every one of his 67 carries.

Now, his personal goal for his junior season is no less than 2,000 yards.

"I've shown what I can do prior, in my first year and second year," Clement told Bucky's 5th Quarter. "I think my last year was kind of a tease as to showing what I can do. I felt as if I could have gotten as many carries as Melvin did last year, I think I could have got myself into a groove. I've been waiting, now it's time for me to get my shine."

It has almost become a custom at Wisconsin, really. Highly recruited running backs sign on with the Badgers and wait in the shadows until it's finally their time. Gordon told Sports Illustrated last fall that he would at times get frustrated with the limited role he was in. Before him, White wasn't the starter until his senior season and Ball went on to break the all-time FBS record for touchdowns with 83, but only had 22 of those through two seasons.

In his first two seasons, Clement's patience was tested from the outset. Former running backs coach Thomas Hammock chewed him out on his first day of practice after a striders drill. That night, Clement sat in his dorm and questioned if he had made the right choice in coming to Wisconsin.

"I was second-guessing myself," he said. "I'm like, 'I don't know if I can hang with these guys."

Being the understudy was also surely a large test of patience. But now that he's the man at the top, his mentality hasn't changed.

"I have to have the freshman mindset, as if somebody's trying to take my spot or I'm trying to take somebody's spot," Clement said.

There surely are other backs trying to take his spot, though Clement succeeded in not letting them.

Juniors Dare Ogunbowale and Serge Trezy, plus freshmen Taiwan Deal and Bradrick Shaw, came into fall camp vying for those spots. Ogunbowale emerged from fall camp as the backup, with Deal behind him. If they don't spend enough time together on the field and in the weight room, they surely enough make up for it in FIFA games off it.

"It's the best group I could ask for," Deal said. "I love hanging out with those guys. We just have a great time. Even in meetings, we learn our assignments and things like that, but it's always hilarious. You just feel that brotherhood once you walk into the locker room."

****

It's late August and that brotherhood is on full display at a Wisconsin fall practice. The pecking order is all but finalized for the Badgers' first game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against No. 3 Alabama. Clement and Ogunbowale are sitting out due to the coaches' decision to rest their legs, meaning Deal and Shaw get the first and second-team reps.

Early on in practice, the 6'1, 220-pound Deal -- whose power frame could make him the Badgers' change-of-pace back -- breaks through the left B gap to score on a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Before his offensive linemen can even get to him in the end zone to celebrate, two other bodies have already sprinted 20 yards to be the first ones: Clement and Ogunbowale.

"We're all like brothers, man," Ogunbowale said. "Obviously, when we first get here, we don't know much about each other. Being together all day, now me, Corey, Taiwan are like best friends. We're always hanging out together.

The close bond between Badgers running backs isn't new. That's something, both the upperclassmen say, that has been passed down.

"You really can't try to single yourself out as if you really achieved all that by yourself."

"What those guys really preached is you have a team around you who's working with you," Clement said. "And you really can't try to single yourself out as if you really achieved all that by yourself."

After each practice during fall camp, you could hear the running backs laughing unceasingly once they finished position breakdowns. A group of college kids in the moment not concerned in the least bit about shouldering the Wisconsin running back load.

How impressive is the tradition of success? Since this year's incoming freshman class at UW was born, the Badgers have posted 19 thousand-yard individual rushing seasons, including seven in the last five seasons.

That's not a streak this year's group is taking lightly.

"The expectation is the expectation," Clement said. He glances up at the retired numbers in Camp Randall. "That's what we preach all the time in the running back group. You've got all the greats who came through here and you just don't want to be the one to make it fall off.

"That's what drives us. That's our motivation."

****

Once the Badgers hit the field at Camp Randall, the narratives mean nothing. When Clement is bursting off right tackle, Division I college defenses care not how many Badgers have hit 1,000 yards since 2010. Gordon's mystical 408-yard performance against Nebraska is moot when the Cornhuskers front seven is pursuing Ogunbowale on a dive.

At that point, it's on the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers. Is continuing the strong legacy a weight too heavy to put on a 20-year-old?

Like a safety chasing down a ball carrier that broke loose, it's all about the angle you take.

"He doesn't see it as a weight," Ogunbowale said of the pressure facing Clement. "He sees it as an opportunity. This is a great opportunity for him. Obviously, it's a bit of a challenge maybe, but it's definitely more of an opportunity. He's definitely going to make some noise and I'm excited to see him play."

Clement and his running mates are too busy with, you know, the actual weights, anyway.

There's another source of motivation for this group: each other. Head strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej makes no secret about the number each player is putting up in the weight room, posting the results on a board for all to see.

He's pitting a group of lions against one another.

"Coach K makes it very public about what numbers we're hitting and stuff like that, so I'll see a number that Corey hits and I'll want to try to hit it," Ogunbowale said. "With Taiwan and Corey, same thing."

Clement and Ogunbowale learned an important lesson from Gordon and White, who learned it from Ball and John Clay, who learned it from Brian Calhoun and P.J. Hill and so on: if you're not willing to put the extra work in, there is always some else that's going to work harder.

That's why, this offseason, the group refused to be out-worked. Ogunbowale, who just switched to running back from defensive back last season, put on 14 pounds to get himself to an even 200. The Badgers would set personal bests each Monday on bench press and Tuesday on squats. Clement, at 5'11, 219 pounds, carried logs while running to work on his stride length and finished every run 60 yards downfield to up his stamina. His weight stayed in the same range as before, but he doesn't need to add the muscle weight Ogunbowale needed.

"My body fat is only 8.4 percent or something. I can't lose it for worth a darn."

"I put on three pounds and I can't shed it for a nothing," he says. "Because my body fat is only 8.4 percent or something. I can't lose it for worth a darn."

Something else the Badgers don't want Clement to get rid of is his confidence. He brims with confidence and speaks his mind unapologetically. Throughout the summer, Clement hasn't avoided the P-word: Playoffs, of the College Football variety.

"As a team, I'm looking for nothing short of winning the playoff," Clement said. "If we can get our season off with a win (against Alabama), there's no reason to think we can't do it."

Then there was the comment in Chicago in which Clement compared Nebraska to a flip phone and Wisconsin to an iPhone. In the full context, it wasn't nearly the big storyline it was made out to be -- he was merely discussing how the two teams looked to him as a recruit watching the Badgers' 70-31 Big Ten Championship drubbing in 2012. The quote, however, went on to make headlines from Big Ten media days, and Clement heard all about it on social media.

As always, there was a takeaway from that, too.

"I'm not mad at all," Clement said of the comments he received from Nebraska fans. "I probably know who twisted my words. Media is media and you can't really control it."

****

The method for the madness at Wisconsin isn't measurable, but it quite clearly works. The Badgers recruit well -- Gordon and Clement were four-stars, Ball and White were three -- but there's that something that produces one of the nation's top rushing attacks year after year.

"Every time we come out here, we always want to set a purpose of who can have the biggest day out of all us," Clement said.

There is the competitiveness. The drive. The strength. The late-night agility drills. All of those aspects play a contributing factor in what makes the Wisconsin running backs into the unit they have been and continue to be.

But what separates the Badgers is that it's expected.

"There's a tradition here that we just try to uphold, regardless of who the running back is or what type of player you are," Ogunbowale said. "It's just the standard that we know we have to keep here.

"But it's not even something that we have to teach. It just goes unsaid. The guys that come here just know the past and try to make sure that they keep that tradition."

Deal, a former three-star recruit, now assumes the role of waiting that many had before him. He understands that it is all part of the process.

"Coming to a university like this, the standard is the standard," Deal said. "You feel me? We had a lot of guys ahead of us that left legacies. And we have to work up to that standard."

As for Clement, his two years in the wings have led up to the season's kickoff, when he will receive the reins at long last.

"It's been a blessing," Clement said. "I would say I did work for it. These past two years have been nothing but a learning experience. Now I'm going to take everything from these past two years and wrap it up into one great year."

With that moment still not quite arrived, Clement and company are still in preparation mode.

Running backs coach John Settle is continuing that. During one fall camp practice, he has them running a drill in which each player catches a pass from 5 yards away, turns and runs through the arms of the gauntlet machine. As Clement steps up, the song coming on through the stadium speakers switches.

It's Kanye West, everybody.

"Now I, I go for mine, I got to shine. Now throw your hands up to the sky."

This season, Clement and company will go for theirs. They're getting their shine. The song is an immaculate fit for the group of Badgers running backs as it reverberates through Camp Randall.

Of course, they don't notice. Their minds are on perfecting the drill at hand.

After all, they're not so much worried about getting their shine so much as how they go about getting it.