NCF Nation: John Clay

Big 12 media days live: Day 2

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
9:40
AM ET
The Big 12 media days continue on Tuesday in Dallas, as Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and new Texas coach Charlie Strong each take the stage. Keep this page open throughout the day's proceedings as we bring you the latest from our reporters, who will cover all 10 teams at the event.

MADISON, Wis. -- Like his predecessors at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen's coaching background is rooted in defense, but he knows a good offense when he sees one.

Despite Wisconsin's early season struggles on offense, Andersen recalled Friday how he spent "all summer long" trying to prepare Utah State's defense for the Badger behemoths in a Sept. 15 game at Camp Randall Stadium. The first question he received at his introductory news conference concerned his vision for Wisconsin's offense, and he made it clear there will be no overhaul.

"This is the University of Wisconsin," Andersen said. "I've seen the young men walking around the hallways. I had an opportunity to sit down with a couple of the offensive linemen. I've seen the tight ends, I know the tradition of the running backs. ... We will be a power run team, we will use tight ends, we will use multiple sets and multiple formations.

"We'll be a football team that will be run-first. Our goal and our mind-set will be to wear you down."

That's all Wisconsin players and fans need to hear. There's little desire to change the pro-style, power-oriented system that set records the past two seasons -- Wisconsin ranked fifth and sixth nationally in scoring -- before enduring some transition this fall.

Andersen had used some spread elements at Utah State but pointed out that he has coached some standout running backs, among them Robert Turbin, the 2011 WAC Offensive Player of the Year who now plays for the Seattle Seahawks.

"I have been around three NFL backs the last two years at Utah State," Andersen said, "and that's because we run the football. I expect to be able to do the exact same thing here."

Andersen's vision for the offense resonates with players like Wisconsin sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein, who, at 6-foot-8 and 342 pounds, certainly fits the current system.

"It definitely means a lot to me," Havenstein told ESPN.com. "I'm not the prototypical spread offensive lineman. I'm very glad to hear that, to keep what Wisconsin's doing well for the past couple years and just try to help him build off of that."

Havenstein notes that every coach has a different philosophy, and Andersen and his staff will put their own imprint on the offense. Andersen noted in his news conference how "a touch of option" will be part of the scheme as the option adds to a defense's challenge.

A source tells ESPN.com that Andersen will retain Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who has molded stars such as Montee Ball and John Clay. It's unlikely Andersen brings back offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who already accepted the same job at NC State and reportedly has a $500,000 buyout with the Wolf Pack. Could Hammock be in the mix for the coordinator job? We'll see.

"I will say this about the offensive coordinator," Andersen said. "When you're at the University of Wisconsin, it's a great job, it's not a good job, it's a great job. ... They'll line up a thousand deep, if you want them to. The key is to find the right guy to run this offense."

This much is known: It'll be a guy tasked to not mess with success.

MADISON, Wis. -- Like his predecessors at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen's coaching background is rooted in defense, but he knows a good offense when he sees one.

Despite Wisconsin's early season struggles on offense, Andersen recalled Friday how he spent "all summer long" trying to prepare Utah State's defense for the Badger behemoths in a Sept. 15 game at Camp Randall Stadium. The first question he received at his introductory news conference concerned his vision for Wisconsin's offense, and he made it clear there will be no overhaul.

"This is the University of Wisconsin," Andersen said. "I've seen the young men walking around the hallways. I had an opportunity to sit down with a couple of the offensive linemen. I've seen the tight ends, I know the tradition of the running backs. ... We will be a power run team, we will use tight ends, we will use multiple sets and multiple formations.

"We'll be a football team that will be run-first. Our goal and our mind-set will be to wear you down."

That's all Wisconsin players and fans need to hear. There's little desire to change the pro-style, power-oriented system that set records the past two seasons -- Wisconsin ranked fifth and sixth nationally in scoring -- before enduring some transition this fall.

Andersen had used some spread elements at Utah State but pointed out that he has coached some standout running backs, among them Robert Turbin, the 2011 WAC Offensive Player of the Year who now plays for the Seattle Seahawks.

"I have been around three NFL backs the last two years at Utah State," Andersen said, "and that's because we run the football. I expect to be able to do the exact same thing here."

Andersen's vision for the offense resonates with players like Wisconsin sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein, who, at 6-foot-8 and 342 pounds, certainly fits the current system.

"It definitely means a lot to me," Havenstein told ESPN.com. "I'm not the prototypical spread offensive lineman. I'm very glad to hear that, to keep what Wisconsin's doing well for the past couple years and just try to help him build off of that."

Havenstein notes that every coach has a different philosophy, and Andersen and his staff will put their own imprint on the offense. Andersen noted in his news conference how "a touch of option" will be part of the scheme as the option adds to a defense's challenge.

A source tells ESPN.com that Andersen will retain Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who has molded stars such as Montee Ball and John Clay. It's unlikely Andersen brings back offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who already accepted the same job at NC State and reportedly has a $500,000 buyout with the Wolf Pack. Could Hammock be in the mix for the coordinator job? We'll see.

"I will say this about the offensive coordinator," Andersen said. "When you're at the University of Wisconsin, it's a great job, it's not a good job, it's a great job. ... They'll line up a thousand deep, if you want them to. The key is to find the right guy to run this offense."

This much is known: It'll be a guy tasked to not mess with success.
Paul Chryst and Pat NarduzziGetty ImagesPat Narduzzi, left, and Paul Chryst coordinate elite units, which will lock horns in the Big Ten title game.

If your team has a head-coaching vacancy -- looking at you, Illinois fans -- you're probably hearing the names Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi right about now.

Chryst, the Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Narduzzi, the Michigan State defensive coordinator, are the two hottest candidates among Big Ten assistants to become head coaches in the coming days and weeks.

Both men have been instrumental in Wisconsin and Michigan State becoming new powers in the Big Ten. Both men oversee units ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major statistical categories (scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, rush defense, scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense). And both should be fielding some calls from other programs.

If you're not familiar with Chryst and Narduzzi, there's some good news for you. They'll be coaching directly against one another Saturday night when No. 13 Michigan State takes on No. 15 Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.

While Chryst is working on another record-setting season with Wisconsin's offense, Narduzzi's defense has taken a significant step forward this year.

The Spartans' defense moved from good -- it ranked 43rd nationally in total defense and 39th in points allowed last year -- to nationally elite. Michigan State's defense leads the Big Ten in the following categories: rushing defense (102.5 yards per game), total defense (266.7 ypg), sacks (38), interceptions (16) and third-down defense (32.9 percent conversions). Narduzzi's crew has held seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and six opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Michigan State has allowed only eight rushing touchdowns all year and just 30 trips inside the red zone.

"I think he's a genius," Spartans senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "With how we watch film and how he breaks everything down -- him and the GAs and the coaches -- they do such a great job. Every game we go into, even the games that we've lost, we lost on not executing. It's not like bad coaching, play calls or anything, it’s just us missing a tackle or blowing a coverage ."

Narduzzi and the other Michigan State coaches were off-limits to the media this week, but he took some time this spring with ESPN.com to break down the Spartans' approach to defending the power run. Check out the videos here and here. Coincidentally, the opponent in the clips is Wisconsin.

Robinson said he and his fellow defenders are never shocked by a formation or a play an opponent showcases. They've already seen it in practice.

Narduzzi also keeps his players in mind when crafting game plans.

"Nothing's really complicated for us," said Robinson, who is tied with teammate Isaiah Lewis for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. "He makes it as simple as possible, and if the guys aren't liking something, like a certain play, coach will be like, 'You guys aren't liking this? OK, scratch it. If you're not comfortable with it, we're not doing it.' So he makes sure all of us players are comfortable with the calls that he has. It's a great thing."

Wisconsin's offense has thrived in Chryst's five-plus seasons as offensive coordinator, averaging more than 34 points per game. Last year the Badgers averaged 41.5 points, shattering the team scoring record by more than a touchdown per game. This year's unit is on pace to surpass the mark, averaging 44.8 points a game.

Under Chryst's watch Wisconsin has produced the Big Ten offensive player of the year in two of the past three seasons (running back John Clay in 2009, running back Montee Ball this year). Quarterbacks like John Stocco, Scott Tolzien and more recently Russell Wilson are among the most successful in team history.

"Paul Chryst uses players' abilities as good as any coach I've ever been around," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. "As a head coach, you really appreciate coordinators that understand the skill set of your players and how to use them and maximize those skills. Everybody has a weakness, and if you can hide it or minimize it, you're going to be better overall. Paul really does a good job of that."

Montee Ball
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith Montee Ball (28) and Russell Wilson (16), coordinator Paul Chryst has made Wisconsin's offense even more prolific than in past years.
Wisconsin's offense lacks glitz or gimmicks, and the Badgers make no secret about their intention to overpower their opponents from a one-back set. Although Wisconsin recruits to its vision on offense, Chryst has shown the ability to adjust, especially this year with Wilson, whose skills are unlike what the Badgers typically have at quarterback.

"We'll do some things that will become staples of your offense or of your program," Chryst said, "but each year, you adjust to the players you have."

Chryst played a big role in attracting Wilson to Madison from North Carolina State, and Wilson describes his coach as having "a calmness to him, but a competitive edge that most people can't match."

"He always wants his players to understand the whys of football," Wilson said. "That's what I love. ... I ask a lot of questions."

Wilson admits to peppering Chryst about his past experiences working with quarterbacks like Derek Anderson at Oregon State. Chryst also spent time with Drew Brees during a one-year stint as a San Diego Chargers offensive assistant.

"The value to coaching a lot of different players is it really just reinforces how different each guy is," Chryst said. "It's your job as a coach then to know the player and then adjust. There's a lot of different ways to have success. You realize Scotty Tolzien can have success different than Russell Wilson or Derek Anderson or other guys I've been around."

Chryst's name has come up before at this time of year for coaching vacancies elsewhere. Texas courted him for its offensive coordinator vacancy after the 2010 season, and Chryst was on Purdue's radar to replace Joe Tiller.

Earlier this week Chryst denied having contact with Illinois about its vacancy, and he remains focused on facing the Narduzzi-led Spartans defense on Saturday night.

"You can put yourself into a cocoon," he said. "Who cares what's being rumored about? I've got a job and that's to coach football here at Wisconsin. The best thing you can do is do your job well."

Both Chryst and Narduzzi have done their jobs very well this season, possibly setting them up for better things.

The great debate: Big Ten's best RB

November, 9, 2011
11/09/11
11:15
AM ET
The 2010 season wasn't a great one for Big Ten running backs.

The league's best running back played quarterback (Michigan's Denard Robinson). Illinois' Mikel Leshoure flew under the radar but was a nationally elite back in every sense of the word.

But after those two, meh. The league boasted some solid backs -- Edwin Baker, James White, Dan Herron, Adam Robinson, John Clay -- but no one you had to watch every time he took the field. The Big Ten's real star power could be found on the defensive line, as five players went on to become first round picks in the NFL draft.

This season, it's all about the running backs in the Big Ten. The league boasts four players averaging more than 105 rush yards per game, all of whom rank among the nation's top 21 rushers. No other league has more backs in the top 25 nationally than the Big Ten.

So who's the Big Ten's best running back in 2011? It's already one of the more spirited debates around the conference.

Let's meet the candidates (in alphabetical order):
Now let's take a closer look at each player and how they stack up.

MONTEE BALL

Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Wentzville, Mo.

2011 stats: 162 carries for 1,076 yards and 21 touchdowns, 119.6 ypg, 6.64 ypc, 13 receptions for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns, 1-for-1 passing with a 25-yard touchdown

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIREWisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball leads the nation with 24 touchdowns.
Things to know: Ball leads the nation with 24 touchdowns, tying the team record set by Brian Calhoun. He needs just two touchdowns to tie the Big Ten single-season record held by three players. Ball scores a touchdown every 7.3 touches. ... Ball leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (145 per game). He ranks fifth nationally among FBS running backs in combined rushing-receiving yards. ... He has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last 15 games and 39 touchdowns during the span. ... Ball has rushed for at least 115 yards in eight of his last nine games against Big Ten opponents. ... Like the other Wisconsin backs, Ball has no fumbles (lost or recovered) this season. ... Despite a strong finish to last season, Ball transformed his body in the winter and spring, shedding weight to add speed while maintaining his power.

Supporting cast: Ball has the best supporting cast of the four candidates. He runs behind one of the nation's best offensive lines, a group led by NFL prospect Peter Konz. His quarterback, Russell Wilson, is a Heisman Trophy candidate and has brought a new element to Wisconsin's offense. His backup, James White, is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

The quote: "He's definitely our best practice player. Nobody has practice that hard at that position since I've been here." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema

Quick case for Ball: "Moneyball" is a touchdown-scoring machine and has been absolutely unstoppable for most of the season. Few backs in the country have been more effective than Ball since the middle of last season. He doesn't put the ball on the ground and consistently moves it forward and into the end zone. He didn't rest on his laurels in the offseason and got better physically.

Quick case against Ball: Wisconsin's track record of running the ball probably works against Ball with the other candidates. The Badgers always have a dominant back (or three) and terrific offensive lines. Wilson's presence also has opened things up for Ball in the run game.

REX BURKHEAD

Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Plano, Texas

2011 stats: 187 carries for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns, 105.7 ypg, 5.1 ypc, 14 receptions for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireNebraska running back Rex Burkhead averages 6.16 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season for the Cornhuskers.
Things to know: Burkhead has recorded five 100-yard rushing performances in the last seven games, including against two of the nation's better rush defenses in Michigan State and Ohio State. He turned in a heroic performance in the win against the Spartans, carrying 35 times, the third-highest total in team history. ... Burkhead has gotten better as games have gone on. He has 43 fourth-quarter carries and has averaged 6.16 yards in the final quarter. Burkhead had 109 second-half yards and 96 fourth-quarter yards in Nebraska's historic comeback win against Ohio State. ... He has lost just 32 yards on 187 carries. ... Of his 38 carries in the red zone, Burkhead has gained a first down or a touchdown on 15 rushes. He has rushed for at least one touchdown in every game this season. ... Former Texas high school star nicknamed "Superman," Burkhead did a bit of everything for Nebraska in 2010, even taking some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback.

Supporting cast: Burkhead shares a backfield with another rushing threat in quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has 712 rush yards and nine touchdowns this season. While Martinez demands the attention of opposing defenses, he also takes away some carries and scoring opportunities for Burkhead. Nebraska's offensive line entered the season banged-up and extremely young, but the group has come together nicely. The Huskers' passing attack ranks 101st nationally, and Martinez and his receivers have had their ups and downs. After Burkhead and Martinez, no other Nebraska player has more than 25 carries.

The quote: "He might not be the flashiest guy in the world. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and how he plays the game." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

Quick case for Burkhead: He's one of the more reliable players in the country and an absolute joy to watch. He doesn't mess around with excessive moves and blends speed and power extremely well. Unlike Ball and Coker, he doesn't operate in an offense with a strong passing threat, and he's produced against some solid defenses.

Quick case against Burkhead: His numbers don't pop off the page like some of the other candidates'. Burkhead's most impressive performance (against MSU) was more of a workmanlike effort (35 carries, 3.7 ypc) than one that wows you. He doesn't have many long runs in Big Ten play (longest is 22 yards).

MARCUS COKER

Vitals: 6-0, 230, sophomore from Beltsville, Md.

2011 stats: 211 carries for 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns, 122.3 ypg, 5.2 ypc, 15 receptions for 94 yards

[+] EnlargeIowa Hawkeyes running back Marcus Coker
Byron Hetzler-US PRESSWIREIowa running back Marcus Coker is setting records for the Hawkeyes.
Things to know: Coker leads the Big Ten in carries, rushing yards and rushing average (he ranks sixth nationally). ... He has six 100-yard rushing performances this season. His 12 rushing touchdowns tie for the fourth-highest single-season total in team history ... Coker ranks second in the Big Ten and 41st nationally in all-purpose yards (132.8 ypg). ... His 252 rushing yards yards in an Oct. 22 game at Minnesota ranks as third best single-game total in school history. ... He's one of only four backs in Iowa history to record multiple 200-yard rushing performances. ... Coker has eclipsed 120 rush yards and scored two touchdowns in each of his last four games, all against Big Ten opponents.

Supporting cast: Coker runs behind one of the better Big Ten offensive lines, led by NFL draft prospect Riley Reiff at left tackle. Iowa isn't quite as powerful up front as Wisconsin but boasts a better line than both Penn State and Nebraska. Quarterback James Vandenberg has had a very strong season passing the ball, and defenses must respect Iowa's aerial attack and receiving corps, led by star senior Marvin McNutt. Coker has been Iowa's bell cow, as no other Hawkeyes running back has logged more than 18 carries.

The quote: "Marcus is the type of back that makes your offensive line want to block for him. So we definitely love him, and we love blocking for him, and we don't want anyone else back there." -- Iowa center James Ferentz, to The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette

The case for Coker: He leads the Big Ten in rushing and has improved as the season has progressed. He boasts arguably the best combination of power and big-play potential among the candidates, recording six runs of 25 yards or more and three of 41 yards or more. While some of the other candidates are solid, reliable runners, Coker has the rare ability to simply dominate a game.

The case against Coker: He struggled with fumbles at the start of the year and hurt Iowa in its Week 2 loss to Iowa State. He benefits from Iowa's lack of depth at running back and gets more carries than other candidates. He averaged a pedestrian 4.3 yards per rush through Iowa's first five games. He feasted on mostly average defenses.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State running back Silas Redd carries a heavy workload in the Nittany Lions offense.
SILAS REDD

Vitals: 5-10, 209, sophomore from Norwalk, Conn.

2011 stats: 195 carries for 1,006 yards and 7 touchdowns, 111.8 ypg, 5.2 ypc, eight receptions for 31 yards

Things to know: Redd recorded five consecutive 100-yard games and led all FBS players with 703 rushing yards in October. He averaged 140.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry during the month. He's the first Penn State player to record five consecutive 100-yard games since former All-American Curtis Enis in 1997. ... He already has eclipsed 1,000 rush yards for the season, becoming the 12th Penn State player to do so. ... He already has 118 carries more than he had all of last season and has racked up 28 or more carries in four of Penn State's five Big Ten games. ... He has lost just 19 yards on 195 carries. ... Redd worked on his body during the offseason and added 10-15 pounds to help with an increased workload. He also changed his running style, becoming a more straight-ahead, downhill power back.

Supporting cast: Redd has the weakest supporting cast of the candidates, underscoring how impressive his performance has been this season. Penn State has rotated two quarterbacks all season and had very limited success in the passing game, so the offense relies heavily on Redd to produce. The offensive line is performing better in recent weeks but hasn't been as strong as Wisconsin's and Iowa's, and even Nebraska's. Redd has gotten a bit of help from fellow backs Beachum and Curtis Dukes, but Dukes is second on Penn State's carries list with only 35.

The quote: "He can hurt you with his speed and his elusiveness outside, and he can run between the tackles. He's a pretty complete back." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

The case for Redd: He has been an absolute workhorse for a struggling Penn State offense and transformed himself into a complete back in just his sophomore season. Redd had the most impressive month of any candidate (October), and he did it all against Big Ten competition. He has the weakest supporting cast and, along with Coker, he's clearly his team's main ball-carrier.

The case against Redd: The main knock on Redd is he doesn't score enough touchdowns. He has 14 fewer rush touchdowns than Ball, six fewer than Burkhead and five fewer than Coker. Redd also has had some fumbling issues that have ended promising Penn State drives.
It's not all about the seniors in the Big Ten anymore.

The past four winners of the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year have been non-seniors, including sophomores in each of the past two seasons (Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Wisconsin RB John Clay). Two of the first three Big Ten players selected in April's NFL draft were defensive linemen with junior eligibility (Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Illinois' Corey Liuget).

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson passed for 2,570 yards and ran for 1,702 yards last season.
Wisconsin still touts as a developmental program but has produced the Big Ten Freshman of the Year the past two seasons (RB James White and LB Chris Borland). Other teams consistently produce non-senior stars.

With that in mind, let's take a look at three non-seniors to watch and three impact freshmen.

NON-SENIORS TO WATCH

1. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan, junior, 6 feet. 193: You couldn't take your eyes off of Robinson in 2010, particularly in September, when he was college football's most exciting player. The dynamic Wolverines quarterback now must transition to a new system that likely doesn't fit his skill set quite as well as the spread offense did. Will "Shoelace" reinvent himself or stumble? Find out this fall.

2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin, junior, 5-11, 210: Although he'll share carries with another underclassman to watch, 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, Ball might have more Badgers fans buzzing. He was arguably the nation's hottest running back in the second half of last season, recording 777 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games. Ball, who slimmed down during the offseason to increase his speed, could be Wisconsin's featured ball carrier.

3. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue, sophomore, 5-9, 176: Some of you might not have noticed Allen last season as Purdue struggled and wasn't relevant in November. Don't make the same mistake this fall, as Allen could be one of the nation's most dynamic defenders. He recorded three interceptions as a freshman, including two pick-sixes, and led the Big Ten with 129 interception return yards. Allen is fast, aggressive and not afraid of being physical with bigger receivers. Keep an eye on him in 2011.

IMPACT FRESHMEN

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, 6-3, 210: Miller's potential impact became a lot more interesting after Terrelle Pryor left the program June 7. After enrolling early and going through spring ball, Miller now has a chance to compete for the full-time starting position. The talent and athleticism are there, and if Miller shows he can grasp the system and separate himself in camp, he could lead Ohio State's offense Sept. 3 against Akron.

2. Tony Lippett, CB/WR, Michigan State, 6-2, 189: After redshirting in 2010, Lippett had a breakout spring and had coordinators Dan Roushar (offense) and Pat Narduzzi (defense) fighting over his services. Lippett plays cornerback and wide receiver but will start his career on the defensive side. He should get on the field in nickel and/or dime packages and could be a factor on special teams.

3. Jamal Turner, WR, Nebraska, 6-1, 180: Nebraska needs more options at receiver and Turner should work his way into the mix. The early enrollee who soon moved from quarterback to receiver sparkled in the spring game, racking up 228 all-purpose yards. Turner could join Brandon Kinnie as one of Nebraska's top wideouts, and he'll definitely be a factor in the return game.
We round out the day of polling with a look at the Big Ten's offensive player of the year race.

For the second consecutive year, the Big Ten returns its reigning offensive POY. Wisconsin running back John Clay wasn't able to repeat as the winner after claiming the award in 2009. Indiana running back Anthony Thompson is the only player to win Big Ten offensive player of the year in consecutive seasons (1988-89).

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson can change things with another superb season this fall. Robinson set the NCAA quarterback rushing record with 1,702 yards in 2010, became the first player in FBS history to record 2,500 pass yards and 1,500 rush yards in the same season, and also set several Michigan marks. But the Wolverines junior is transitioning to a new offense that might present some challenges.

Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is another leading candidate after rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles' that cut short his 2010 season. Persa set a Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5 percent) and will lead what could be one of the league's best offenses this season.

Not to be forgotten is Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, who enters his third season as a starter after leading the Spartans to a share of their first Big Ten title in two decades. Cousins battled through injuries during the second half of last season. At full strength, he could have a huge year.

Don't forget about the Big Ten running backs in this race. Wisconsin has two of the best in Montee Ball and James White, who could end up competing against each other for the award.

What say you?

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.

[+] EnlargeJames White
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireJames White led Wisconsin in rushing yards (1,052) and all-purpose yards (1,469) last 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.

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."
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin loves to describe its program as "not sexy," but the label is becoming less and less accurate.

After the Badgers made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, nine members of coach Bret Bielema's staff received inquiries from other teams. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren landed the head-coaching job at Northern Illinois. Two assistants, John Settle and Greg Jackson, left for posts in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst turned down a lucrative coordinator offer from Texas to remain with his alma mater.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Bret Bielema leads a Wisconsin program that has churned out a lot of elite players in recent seasons.
The inquiries also are coming Wisconsin's way, as decorated recruits from "coast to coast" -- particularly running backs and offensive linemen, two position groups where the Badgers have flourished -- express interest in the program.

"They're getting recruited by heavy, heavy people in their area," Bielema said. "We haven't had that number of people respond from outside our area."

Wisconsin is pushing for a $76.8 million athletic performance center that would include new locker rooms and training facilities and an upgrade for the McClain Center, the team's indoor practice facility. Although Wisconsin has remained in the top half of the Big Ten on the field, it needs a boost with its facilities.

So, is Wisconsin bringing sexy back? Perhaps on the surface, but the program hasn't changed at its core.

"The only reason we're at the level we're at is because we maximize what we are," Bielema said. "Our staff, our players and our administration recognizes why we've had this success and not to deviate from that plan just because there might be better things out there.

"We're going to build this new facility, but bigger isn't always better. It's about the components and how functional it is and what it stands for."

The Wisconsin Way will be put to the test in 2011 as the Badgers lose more standout components than any other Big Ten squad. Gone are four All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt -- the 2010 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award winner in quarterback Scott Tolzien, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back John Clay, and other key contributors.

Other than Ohio State, every Big Ten team has struggled to reload in recent years. Can the Badgers buck the trend in 2011?

"Here, we really have to develop our players where they're really good their last 2-3 years," co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "We feel like this is a developmental program, and we're proud of that."

No position group better demonstrates the philosophy than the defensive ends Partridge coaches.

In 2009, O'Brien Schofield went from anonymous to first-team All-Big Ten, finishing second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) and tied for sixth in sacks. Watt began his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and finished it as one of the nation's best defenders. He's projected as a first-round pick in this week's NFL draft and could be the first Big Ten player selected.

There are other examples of Badger reloading. Wisconsin has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past six seasons. Carimi and his predecessor at left tackle, Joe Thomas, both won the Outland Trophy as seniors.

"People from the outside looking in, they've never heard of these names so they assume they're not any good," Bielema said. "We try to have people waiting in the wings. I remember when no one knew who Lance Kendricks was, or Gabe Carimi, or John Moffitt or Scott Tolzien or J.J. Watt. We were able to develop those guys, bring them through and the results were what you saw last year.

"It's our desire to have a championship every season, but sometimes you're not going to have the personnel to accomplish that. What you want to do is remain competitive, stay in the top level of our conference."

Bielema thinks Wisconsin has a chance to be just as good on defense.

Although Watt leaves a major void, the Badgers boast unprecedented depth at defensive tackle and more overall depth along the line. The secondary returns All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, playmaking safety Aaron Henry and others with experience. If linebacker Chris Borland stays healthy after missing most of 2010 with shoulder injuries, the midsection will be solid.

Leadership shouldn't be an issue as both Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym are stepping forward.

"I'm sure a lot of people out there are counting us out," Henry said. "I could care less about flying under the radar. I just want guys to go out there every week and leave a statement, that we are Wisconsin football, we do play hard-nosed football and we're going to play every snap like its our last."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRunning back Montee Ball, 28, returns to a talented Wisconsin backfield along with speedy James White.
The bigger questions come on offense, starting with the most important position on the field. Jon Budmayr understudied for Tolzien in 2010 and, barring a major surprise, will move into the starting role. Budmayr, who had his ups and downs this spring, must not only display efficiency but remain healthy as there's no proven depth behind him.

Wisconsin once again will lean on a run game expected to be among the nation's best as backs Montee Ball and James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, both return. Although three starting linemen depart, the coaches are excited about who will fill the gaps.

"There's questions for any team, what they can and cannot do," Ball said. "That's why we keep grinding every day so we can show everybody what we're capable of doing."

At Wisconsin, there's no other way. The Badgers aren't a team that can simply show up and win, a fact reinforced last season.

"The thing we did best was we practiced so well during the week," Butrym said. "The one time we didn't practice well was [before the Michigan State game]. It was a Thursday and it was very sloppy and the end result of that was a loss."

Butrym admits the poor practice made him "a little paranoid" about sniffing out signs of complacency. So far, the attitude is good.

"We definitely have to earn it," Henry said. "Ohio State's still in the conference, we added Nebraska, Iowa's still in the conference. Guys know nothing's going to be handed to us."

Checking in on the Badgers ...

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
1:00
PM ET
MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from Madtown, where it feels more like late fall than late April. Snow is in the forecast. Badger weather.

I'll be spending the day with coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers, who come off of their first Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. Wisconsin came up short in Pasadena, a loss that likely still stings around here, but it's time to turn the page.

We'll find out a lot about the Wisconsin program this coming season. No Big Ten team loses more star players than the Badgers, who say goodbye to five All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks, tackle Gabe Carimi, guard John Moffitt and running back John Clay -- in addition to quarterback Scott Tolzien and other standouts. While Wisconsin has proved it can mass-produce running backs and offensive linemen, the team must show it can continue making strides despite the lost production. Bielema and his staff have recruited well as of late, and their player development skills will be put to the test.

Here are some of the items I'll be tracking today:
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr's spring progress. After backing up Tolzien last season, Budmayr seems to have the inside track for the starting job. Curt Phillips is coming off a second ACL surgery, and Joe Brennan has no game experience. Is Budmayr separating himself? If not, what does he need to improve?
  • Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but the Badgers became a big-play unit and no one made more plays than Watt. Chris Ash takes over as coordinator after upgrading the secondary in his first season with the Badgers. He's looking for contributors this spring. Wisconsin should be solid in the secondary with Aaron Henry, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith, but it needs to replace two starting linebackers and Watt, of course. I've heard a lot about the Trotter twins (Michael and Marcus) this spring. How do they factor in the mix and who else is stepping up?
  • Like most teams, the Badgers have been at their best when they boast strong leaders. They lose quite a few from the 2010 team, and it'll be interesting to see who is answering the bell along both lines, at linebacker and at the quarterback spot.
  • Despite losing Clay and three starting offensive linemen, Wisconsin's run game should once again be scary good this fall. No Big Ten player improved more throughout the season than Montee Ball, and Wisconsin also returns reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White. Fifth-year senior Zach Brown also has re-entered the mix. It'll be good to check in with the backs and see how they're doing this spring.

More to come from Badger country. Stay tuned.
After Saturday's scrimmage, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema described Zach Brown as an "angry back."

The comment surprised Brown.

[+] EnlargeZach Brown
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireWisconsin's Zach Brown rushed for for 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns from 2007-09.
"That was an interesting quote," Brown told me this week. "I've never been referred to as an angry back. I think he's just saying I came out with high intensity, a high motor and just playing hard every play."

It was easy to forget about Brown in 2010 as Wisconsin's rushing attack surged behind the triumvirate of John Clay, James White and Montee Ball. Brown, who started the final four games of his true freshman season way back in 2007, opted to redshirt last fall so he could focus on his academics and get his knee tendonitis under control.

He's back on the field this spring, and though Wisconsin returns two potential All-Big Ten backs in Ball and White, the fifth-year senior from Royal Palm, Fla., isn't fading into the backdrop. Brown stood out in last week's scrimmage and hopes to take a chunk of the carries this fall.

"Going into the spring knowing you’re going to get time in the fall, you know you’ve got to compete and take these reps seriously," he said. "I'm feeling good. I haven't felt this good in a while."

It was a different story in preseason camp, as Brown got lost in a crowded group of backs.

"I had a real bad case of tendonitis, and I wasn't competing how I wanted to," he recalled. "There were four of us going in and it was high intensity, and I felt like I couldn't reach the [same] intensity as the other backs. It was just hard."

It didn't get much easier for Brown as he watched games from the sideline. He saw Wisconsin surge to the Rose Bowl on the strength of its run game.

But as White showed in August and Ball showed in October and November, Wisconsin's competition at running back never stops. If you elevate your game, you'll get on the field.

Former Badgers running backs coach John Settle preached that approach, and his successor Thomas Hammock hasn't changed it.

"Coach Hammock brought that mentality in, like, 'What have you done for me lately?'" said Brown, who added some mass during the winter and checks in at 219 pounds this spring. "So there's no more thinking about what you did last year."

That's good news for Brown, who had no statistics from 2010 but rushed for 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns from 2007-09.

"I just want to say when it's all said and done," Brown said, "that my last year, I was the best back I could be."

He's well on his way.
Two Big Ten-related news stories this afternoon, both of the "no surprise" variety.

JOHN CLAY

It's official: Clay has decided to forgo his senior season at Wisconsin and enter the 2011 NFL draft.

I expected this before the season, and while Clay battled through a knee injury and didn't have the huge rushing production many had expected, he's certainly ready to make the jump. You can never fault running backs for leaving early, especially 23-year-old running backs with 629 attempts in college.
“There are a lot of people that I would like to thank who have helped me along the way,” Clay said in a statement. “I’d like to thank the great Wisconsin fans for supporting me throughout my time as a Badger. I'd also like to thank my family for helping me through this process. I want to thank my coaches for giving me the opportunity to come to Wisconsin and putting me in a position to showcase my talents. Also, thanks to my teammates for everything they have done to help me. Finally, I have to give glory to God for blessing me with this opportunity. This is the right decision for me at this time and I’m excited to start a new chapter."

The 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year fit the classic power back mold at Wisconsin. Although he'll likely need to slim down and improve his conditioning level in the NFL, Clay can be valuable at the next level.

Another reason to make the move is the competition at Wisconsin. There was no guarantee Clay would start ahead of Montee Ball or James White, both of whom eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards this season.

Best of luck to big John, a really, really nice guy who always was gracious with his time.

JIM HARBAUGH

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon turned out to be right as Harbaugh is heading to the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.

As Harbaugh's stock soared in recent weeks, Michigan's chances of landing the former Wolverines quarterback seemed to dwindle. Despite being the obvious choice to replace Rich Rodriguez, Harbaugh is staying in the Bay Area -- he won't have to move -- and coaching at the next level.

I'd be somewhat surprised if Michigan's search doesn't start to focus on LSU's Les Miles and San Diego State's Brady Hoke, but don't count out Brandon looking to the outside for a candidate.

A few other Big Ten notes before wrapping things up:
PASADENA, Calif. -- Wisconsin finally got it rolling midway through the fourth quarter.

Trailing TCU 21-13 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, the Badger battering ram kicked into high gear.

John Clay ran for 14 yards. Then he ran for 30 more. After a nifty throw from Scott Tolzien to Lance Kendricks picked up 10 yards on third-and-6, the Badgers got back to their bread and butter.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Jae C. HongQuarterback Scott Tolzien and Wisconsin could not get going offensively against TCU.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run.

Touchdown.

Had Wisconsin finally rediscovered who it is and why it got here?

"I'd like to think so," senior guard John Moffitt said. "But it wasn't who we were today. And that's all that matters."

Wisconsin's run-heavy, clock-eating drive at the end of Saturday's game was the exception rather than the rule. Too often the Badgers strayed from what had made them Big Ten champions, and it cost them in a 21-19 loss to TCU.

"We were doing some uncharacteristic things," said running back Montee Ball, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown. "Twenty yards going in, we score seven points. We don't get penalties, and we did today. We wasted our timeouts because we had the wrong information in there.

"We were most definitely not playing Wisconsin football, and that's how you lose football games."

There were moments and even stretches where Wisconsin appeared to establish its identity Saturday. But it never lasted.

Ball began the game with a major statement, dashing 40 yards through a huge hole on the right side of the line. But the drive stalled in the red zone on a dropped pass by Nick Toon, and Wisconsin had to settle for a field goal.

Toward the end of the first half, Wisconsin converted a fourth down on a fake punt and twice moved the chains on third-and-long to reach TCU territory. But again, they had to settle for a field goal.

And then there was the game's defining play, which followed Wisconsin's defining drive. Rather than stick with the run on the potential tying 2-point conversion attempt, the Badgers went to the air. Tight end Jacob Pedersen found space in the end zone, but TCU's Tank Carder swatted away Tolzien's pass.

"That was something we saw on film, and obviously the guy was open," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But you've got to get the defender's hands down in that situation. Hindsight is 20/20. I felt confident with the call, [offensive coordinator Paul Chryst] felt confident, and we went with it."

Not surprisingly, Tolzien concurred and saw what he needed to see.

"It looked like a zero blitz, they were bringing everyone and just playing man," Tolzien said. "I wouldn't change a thing. We had a guy open, and their guy tipped it, plain and simple."

TCU linebacker Tanner Brock was surprised to see Tolzien line up in the shotgun after the previous drive, which featured runs on nine of 10 plays.

"A little bit [surprised]," Brock said, "because that's not really Wisconsin."

Wisconsin reached the Rose Bowl primarily because of its offense, a unit that averaged a team-record 45.2 points in Big Ten play. The Badgers racked up 201 points in their final three regular-season games and scored 31 points or more in their final seven games. Saturday, they became the first team in FBS history to produce three 1,000-yard running backs in a season.

This offense ran the ball at will, executed in the play-action pass game and reached the end zone 63 times. Most important, Wisconsin didn't beat itself, leading the nation in fewest turnovers (9) and fewest penalties per game (2.92).

Although the Badgers didn't cough up the ball, they committed a season-high six penalties. They also allowed two sacks and seven tackles for loss, above their season averages.

"There's three things we did really well this year: assignment sound, low penalties and low turnovers," left tackle Gabe Carimi said. "Those first two, we didn't do as well as we have been in the past."

Wisconsin reached TCU territory on each of its first five possessions but had only 13 points to show for it. Field position certainly played a role, and Wisconsin struggled to make big plays outside of its first and last drives.

Although the Badgers ran the ball more than twice as many times (46) as they passed it (21), they went to the air at some curious times, like on first-and-10 from their own 3-yard line late in the third quarter. Wisconsin had benefited from shaking things up at times this season; it ran four consecutive pass plays against Ohio State during a fourth-quarter scoring drive in a 31-18 win.

But TCU never consistently stopped Ball, Clay and James White between the tackles.

What the Horned Frogs did was keep Wisconsin out of the end zone.

"You realize that you only have so many opportunities," Moffitt said. "And every drive that doesn't end in the score is a missed opportunity. We missed a lot of opportunities today."

It's what made the loss so tough to take.

"The shame of it is we left opportunities on the field," Tolzien said. "You don't want to live games and you don't want to live life with regrets. We had some of those today."

Video: Wisconsin's John Clay

January, 1, 2011
1/01/11
10:02
PM ET


Adam Rittenberg talks with Wisconsin's John Clay about the loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl.
PASADENA, Calif. -- Wisconsin had to be disappointed to settle for a Philip Welch field goal on its opening possession, but the Badgers are taking the right approach.

They mixed in running backs Montee Ball and James White, used the clock and got good results.

Ball's 40-yard burst on the opening play sets a good tone for Wisconsin, as the right side of the line opened up a huge hole. Wisconsin also went to the run out of the shotgun, something we didn't see too much of during the regular season. I'd still like to see John Clay early in this game, but Ball and White looked good on the drive.

The Badgers' big key is to execute on obvious passing situations, which is never easy. Nick Toon has to be ready for the pass from Scott Tolzien, which would have set up first-and-goal.

Wisconsin leads 3-0 early in the first quarter.

SPONSORED HEADLINES