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Wisconsin running backs hope to shine all season

Could Wisconsin have the best running back corps in the country?

Mike McGinnis

MADISON -- Even before freshman Corey Clement registered an unanticipated 100-yard game in Wisconsin's opener, the buzz about the Badgers' running backs spent all offseason gaining steam. Despite former Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball off preparing for his first NFL season, could the three-time-defending Big Ten champions have the best group of backs in the country?

"We don't talk like that," running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. "Who cares about what anybody else is doing? It's about what we're doing here."

What the Wisconsin running backs are doing, though -- based on the tiny sample size of a season opener against UMass -- is looking like at least one of the nation's best. James White and Melvin Gordon topped Clement's 101-yard day by each rushing for more than 140 yards, and all three also scored a touchdown in the 45-0 rout of the Minutemen.

"There's nobody to say that we can be stopped. It's all about how we work. We can only beat ourselves." -Corey Clement

The combined performances were enough to spawn a tweet from Ball that said, "So y'all trying to embarrass me huh?"

"None of us are Montee or will try to be Montee," White said, "but we know what we're capable of. We know we have great talent back there. Something we learned from Montee - practice the way you play. If you do things in practice that you do in the game, it'll look easy on Saturdays."

As the trio -- already with touchdown runs of 70, 51 and 23 yards on the season  heads into this weekend's game against Tennessee Tech and then on to the Arizona States, Ohio States and powers across the Big Ten, they're hopeful every other Saturday will appear as easy as the first.

James White

Most wouldn't be able to laugh it off like White does. He still hears that he can't run between the tackles.

"Yeah, I get that all the time," the senior said after a chuckle and a swift smile. "I'm not going to change the way I run."

He doesn't need to. The back that leads all active FBS running backs with 2,714 career rushing yards and 33 rushing touchdowns has proven all he needs to. The Badgers are 17-1 when White scores a touchdown, and yet many Wisconsin fans have tabbed Gordon as a more likely candidate for this year's Heisman Trophy.

He's earned the top spot on the depth chart and garnered praise as a complete back from those who really matter.

"He can run it, he can catch it, he can pass-protect, he can do all the little things that you need a back to do to be successful," Hammock said. "He's been running since he was six, seven years old. So for people to say he can't run between the tackles -- it's not like we just toss him the ball and run outside every play. He knows what to do and how to play, and he's a very, very savvy player."

With 143 yards on just 11 carries in the first start of his career Saturday, he's given even more indication that he's primed for a monster season after taking over for Ball atop the Badgers' depth chart.

"I may not be as big as most guys," he said, "but I feel like I'm physically capable of doing anything out there on the field."

Melvin Gordon

Gordon couldn't help but boast a little, even if he made sure he also credited his running mate.

"I'm going to have to give that one to me," he said when asked Monday if he was faster than White. "James may be a tad bit better in the open field, though. I'll give him that one."

The comparisons between the two could be beaten to death if they haven't already, and many believe there isn't much drop-off between the ultra-talented Gordon and the Badgers' starter. That much was apparent when the redshirt sophomore was placed on this season's Doak Walker Award watch list and voted as a preseason second-team All-Big Ten performer.

"We don't really knock each other too much. If one of us gets a big run, then we're like, ‘Ok, it's your turn next to break one." -Melvin Gordon

Gordon ran for 216 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries in Wisconsin's win over Nebraska in last year's Big Ten Championship game. In his last three games, he's averaging 13.3 yards per carry, helped by a Saturday burst in which he dashed 70 yards untouched down the sideline.

"If you can get him in space, he's pretty dangerous," Hammock said. "Obviously Melvin is an explosive player that's really learning how to play the position. He's a much-improved pass protector. We're going to continue to work on him being able to catch the ball out of the backfield."

His recent production and potential for even more improvement has elevated those around him, as well. He didn't enter the offseason satisfied with No. 2, even if there appears to be plenty of room for multiple stars in the Badgers' backfield.

"It's been a competition since Day 1," Gordon said. "That's just the nature of the position. We don't really knock each other too much. If one of us gets a big run, then we're like, ‘Ok, it's your turn next to break one.'"

Corey Clement

No one expected to be talking about Clement after Saturday's game. But, to Hammock, everyone's pleasant surprise could be used as a learning experience for the freshman.

"I ran up to him after the game and said, ‘What are we doing?'" the running backs coach said.

Clement had finished the game with a late fumble. The 45-0 score -- and the freshman's 101 yards -- weren't enough for a free pass from Hammock.

"Right after the game, I talked to him about the fumble," Hammock said. "He had six or seven plays in a row, you get tired, what's the first thing that goes? Your fundamentals. You've got to physically and mentally push through that moment in order to do what you need to do to get the job done."

Even so, the third-stringer on nobody's radar last week displayed his worth throughout his 16 carries against UMass, a performance that included a 23-yard touchdown run. He was also described Tuesday by Hammock as a "meat-and-potatoes" back that could handle 30 carries a game and get stronger with each one.

The Badgers likely won't be asking for that -- this season, at least -- but the emergence of a third running back with two already vying for national hype would give Wisconsin a rare luxury.

"It was kind of a shocker," Clement said. "I didn't actually think I was going to get in the game that much. That's what I kind of want to do, just to show that I can be a part. Being third-string, you always want to show that you can still fit into any scheme or any play call, any situation. If your number's called, will you be able to handle the rest of the game? I want to show that I can be a part of it."

Clement spoke of White and Gordon like White did with Ball, touting them as mentors that have shown the freshman how to practice, how to play.

"Coming from high school, you think you know it all, but you really don't," he said. "Just working off James and Melvin, I believe we can keep this going every game. There's nobody to say that we can be stopped. It's all about how we work. We can only beat ourselves."

The big picture

Wisconsin won't play UMass every week, a team that ranked 117th in the FBS last season in rushing defense. It's something the Badgers' backfield understands. The holes up front will slim down, and they'll disappear much quicker as the team enters Big Ten play.

"We can't live off last game," White said. "We've got to move on to the next week."

The 393 rushing yards the Badgers piled up Saturday are far from meaningless, though. If nothing else, they're a confidence booster, Gordon said. The sophomore has sifted through the film, finding mistakes he could correct and even more big runs he could have capitalized on.

If one of the many backs stockpiled on Wisconsin's roster doesn't improve from what many fans would consider a near-ideal rushing performance, the other two will.

"When you have a chance to start fast, now you have that hunger for more," Hammock said. "It's certainly a hungry group, and they want to have more success.

"The Big Ten is a tough conference. It's a physical conference. We want to make sure we have the right guys out there that can go out and help us win. ... We just have to make sure we're putting the work in on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday to make sure we can see that happen on the weekend."