Not many college running backs look like Clay. Not many 6-foot-1, 248-pound men boast the combination of speed, agility and power that he has. Clay is an impressive specimen. But he's also just a kid.
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
John Clay has rushed for 326 yards in the Badgers' last two games.
"When you met John Clay when he was a sophomore in high school," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said, "he looked like he should be a sophomore in college."
Clay is now a sophomore in college, but he has a hard time convincing people of that fact. He has a grown man's body, and the grown man's expectations that come with it.
"You look at him, you see this big man, and you kind of forget he’s only 20 and still a young guy, so to speak," Badgers running backs coach John Settle said. "You forget he hasn’t been here four years, and there’s some development that needs to take place. Some guys mature and grow faster than others. He was just a guy I felt like needed to come in and have some success early.
"Right now, he's playing with a lot of confidence."
Clay is starting to complement his physical gifts with greater maturity, and the Badgers are benefiting. Big time. The sophomore has combined for 326 rush yards and four touchdowns in his last two games, recording 32 carries in both contests.
He earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors after exploding for 184 yards and three scores last Saturday at Minnesota. More impressive was the fact that 159 yards came in the second half, as he pounded away at the Gophers' defense.
"I used to focus on running away from people instead of just punishing them," said Clay, who leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards with 584. "But now I’m doing it vice versa, trying to punish them and wear them down and then use my speed to get away."
Clay's emergence comes at the perfect time for Wisconsin, which puts its perfect record on the line Saturday against No. 9 Ohio State in Columbus (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Many pegged Clay for big things this fall after he finished seventh in the league in rushing last season despite backing up P.J. Hill. But he battled ankle problems during spring ball and struggled to keep his weight down.
During preseason camp, junior Zach Brown leapfrogged Clay on the depth chart, a move Settle attributes partly to Brown having a chip on his shoulder and partly to Clay being a bit out of shape and not being as focused as he needed to be.
After a quiet season opener, Clay exploded for 143 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win against Fresno State. He was rewarded with his first career start but fumbled three times during his first 12 carries against Wofford.
Settle, who had seen troubling signs from Clay before the Wofford game, later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Here is a young man that has an opportunity to start at a major Division I program with a lot of great tradition at the position, and to not take full advantage of it is mind-boggling."
Harsh words from a no-nonsense coach, but the message sunk in for Clay.
"“That’s the one thing he’s shown: when you challenge him, he usually responds," Settle said. "My thing is just, ‘Hey, you owe it to yourself to go out and compete and play as hard as you can because you invest so much. You want to get some type of return on your investment.’ I challenged him to go out and do something."
Clay did plenty against Michigan State and Minnesota and won back his starting job for Saturday's game.
He faces an Ohio State team that he nearly joined after being heavily recruited by the Buckeyes coming out of Washington Park High School in Racine, Wis. Clay visited Ohio State and attended a game in Columbus before deciding on the Badgers.
"I was worried," Bielema said. "They [Ohio State] have a very strong tradition of good tailbacks. ... Fortunately for us, during my tenure here and even during Coach [Barry] Alvarez’s, our better players have stayed here in Wisconsin."
Added Clay: "I just wanted to stay in my state and finish where I started my career."
His career could be a special one, according to Settle, who likens Clay to Christian Okoye, a 260-pound bruiser who made two Pro Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"He has the size, and the thing I think will shock a lot of people is his agility and his ability to step through some tackles, step around some guys, make guys miss," Settle said. "When it’s time to get physical, he can get physical. When he needs to run around a guy, he can run around a guy.
"The sky’s the limit for him. He can go as far as he wants to go."