Badgers' backfield tandem not satisfied
April, 25, 2011
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
MADISON, Wis. -- Montee Ball and James White don't mind if you take Wisconsin's running game for granted.
You wouldn't be alone. The Badgers have been among the nation's top 15 rushing offenses in each of the past three seasons after finishing a shameful 21st in 2007. They've recorded 141 rushing touchdowns during the span, including a team-record 48 last season. The Badgers have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past six seasons and last season came four yards shy of being the first team in FBS history to have three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
Two of those players -- White (1,052 rush yards) and Ball (996 rush yards) -- are back for the 2011 campaign. Wisconsin loses former Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay (1,012 rush yards last season) and still will enter the fall with one of the nation's most potent run games.
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireJames White led Wisconsin in rushing yards (1,052) and all-purpose yards (1,469) last season.
So go ahead, mark Wisconsin down for another big year on the ground. Ball and White won't stand in your way.
But they refuse to take the same approach.
"You can't take anything for granted, most definitely the run game," Ball said. "There's always room for improvement."
Despite their success in 2010, Ball and White set out to better themselves in the offseason.
Ball, who played last fall at 236 pounds, reported at a svelte 214 for Wisconsin's spring session. The coaches had felt comfortable with his 2010 playing weight, but Ball knew needed to change his body.
It's a novel approach for a team that has had running backs struggle with weight and toe the line between powerful and puffy.
"I felt my cuts were too slow and I tripped over my feet a lot," Ball said. "That was because I was too top-heavy. Right now, I feel a lot faster, my cuts are a lot more smooth. I knew that if I would cut weight, I'd be a better running back."
White, meanwhile, spent the winter months strengthening his lower body. He increased his squat to 480 pounds and expects to eclipse 500 this summer.
The result is more explosion and better leg drive without compromising White's signature speed and quickness.
"Both of them changed their bodies a little bit for the better," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "We'll all be rewarded for that. Those guys are playing and competing as well as they ever have."
White leapfrogged White on the depth chart during preseason camp and continued to carve a bigger and bigger role in the offense. The Floridian provided a speed element to Wisconsin's power-heavy run scheme and posted the second-best yards-per-carry average (6.74) in team history (minimum: 100 attempts).
He led the team in both rush yards (1,052) and all-purpose yards (1,469) and finished second in rushing touchdowns (14).
"I tried to make the most of each and every carry," White said. "You never know when the next carry is going to come. You get out there, you touch the ball, you try and score every single time."
The accolades have streamed in for White -- Big Ten Freshman of the Year, second-team All-Big Ten, multiple Freshman All-America teams -- but they haven't fazed him.
"With all the success he's had, at first I thought he was going to get a big head," Ball said. "Give credit to his parents for raising him to stay humble. That's why he's a great individual and a good guy to be around."
No running back in the country improved more during the course of the 2010 season than Ball. After losing the backup job to White in August, he received only 46 carries in the first six games before not playing in Wisconsin's milestone win against No. 1 Ohio State.
But after both Clay and White went down with injuries the next week against Iowa, Ball stepped up late with five receptions and the game-winning touchdown run. He then exploded for 777 rush yards and 14 touchdowns in Wisconsin's final five games.
"It's a great slap on the back for Montee, the way he prepared," Bielema said.
As Wisconsin looks to replace offensive standouts like quarterback Scott Tolzien and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, Ball has stepped forward.
"My top priority is to become a leader," Ball said. "I want for every single player on this team to be able to count on me, and for myself to be accountable for my mistakes and for what I achieve."
Competition has been a hallmark for Wisconsin's running backs, and it will continue this season with Ball and White. The two get along well, and Ball has no bitterness about White taking his job last summer, saying, "That's what players come here to do."
While the Badgers have their share of question marks on offense entering the season, the coaches can count on Ball and White -- not only because of what they did last fall but because of what they've done since.
"James and Montee are two talented young backs that have been able to produce," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "I see them getting better and I see them working on a lot of different parts of their games.
"It's a great starting point for our offense."