MADISON - John Clay is getting a load of pre-season hype entering the 2010 season and the Wisconsin coaching staff isn't spending any time trying to dance around the subject.
They knew Clay would be the talk of the town when he came back from a 1500-yard plus season as a sophomore, particularly when the entire offensive line was coming back with him.
So now, with Big Ten media days in the rearview and fall camp underway, how is it that Clay's ankles may have actually made him more focused and prevented him from getting carried away in all the hype?
"I think the one thing that helped us in that situation was unfortunately the ankle injuries," UW running backs coach John Settle said. "For him, having that kind of setback and having to have both ankles fixed and not being able to practice in the spring, we said you're going to have to work your way back into shape and you are going to be facing this.
"We were able to lay things out for him and he's mature enough now to understand where we were coming from."
And Clay took that to heart.
With rumors swirling throughout Madison about Clay's weight, the fourth year junior decided to get back into shape as best he could during the summer. If that meant he had to work out two or three times a day leading into camp, so be it.
As a result, Clay started camp Monday afternoon looking like a running back poised to do great things. He was toned, slim and powerful.
"He was able to get himself into a position physically where he can come out and compete on a daily basis," Settle said. "He competes for a total practice, physically got stronger and his weight is down, he's gotten it off. He's improved in the weight room and he looks good physically.
"The thing as a coach, you want to try to be smart and understand he has missed some time."
Knowing that, the coaching staff found it necessary to limit Clay to a 'pitch count' of sort. Though that is more reserved for the Strasburg's of the world, the staff feels that by limiting his reps and slowly increasing them throughout camp Clay will be at his peak physical conditioning by the time the team breathes the sweltering desert air.
"When we have two or three hour practices we do so much individual and things where we do offensive running drills," Settle said. "When you start adding up all those reps at walk-throughs and all those things it starts taking its toll. We want to be in a position to monitor those things and give him a chance to get his legs back under him.
Not your prototypical backups:
According to Settle, Ball has now reached the 234-pound mark after a summer of intense workouts and conditioning. Heading into the summer, the coaching staff didn't say they wanted Ball to reach a certain weight, but made it clear they wanted him to add some.
So when Ball came to camp Monday afternoon, it was a welcome sight to see the 10 extra pounds of muscle.
"That's his first off-season program in college ball and his body just responded to it," Settle said. "He was able to go from 224 to 234. His bench press went up, his squat went up…everything just shot up. So he has confidence coming into camp because he realizes and feels stronger. He knows he's bigger.
"He's got a lot of confidence and is excited to play on third downs and pick up a blitz here and there."
Knowing Clay was sidelined with his ankle injuries throughout spring camp, Ball started to see he had an opportunity to impress the coaches. He knew he was probably still going to be slated behind Clay when spring turned to summer and the ankles started to heal, but he was going to make the most of each opportunity made available to him.
"I like the approach that he's taken," Settle said. "We knew we were getting a good one when we got him. He has come in and has put himself in a position to kind of push John and keeps the pressure on him. John knows he can't let up. That only makes for great competition and that's what makes you better as a position."
Brown, like Ball, has also added a couple pounds of weight through the weight room. While he is slated as the teams third down back at the start of camp, it is obvious Brown isn't wallowing in his role. Instead, he's focused on doing what he can to help the team out.
"Being a senior that's a tough thing," Settle said. "The one thing he'll tell you is from day one we always told him we're going to play production. Guys that come in and produce are the guys that are going to see the field week in and week out. We brought a guy in in Montee Ball who was able to give us more at times so he was penciled in as the backup.
"Zach understands he has to work at being a solid third down back."
Which in all reality, is a pretty important role for somebody to play. If it's third and short for a Wisconsin offense that features one of the best lines in the country, you can bet it's going to be a run.
So for Brown to be the third down guy, though the carries are down, he still has a responsibility to move the chains and keep the offense going.
"He's a guy with his strength level that can pick up the blitz, stay in there and play well," Settle said. "He's mature enough to understand when he's on the field the game's on the line. It's a must down. If it's third and five, we've got to convert. He accepts that pressure and he understands the pressure of being the guy that comes on the field on third down.
"To his credit, he's done all he can do this off-season to get himself bigger. He's now 220 pounds and hasn't lost any speed. If anything he may be a step quicker. He's definitely stronger. So he's approached it the way he should approach it."
With limited reps at the tailback spot, Brown has also made it clear he wants to contribute in any way possible. If that means going to special teams units, he'll do it.
"There's a couple of special teams that he's volunteered and wants to be on," Settle said. "So you get guys with that mindset, that they want to do whatever it takes to make that team win. I don't think he would have been able to do that a couple years ago.
"But now as a senior, he gets the big picture."
Early on in camp, Settle wasn't shy to gush about his two freshman newcomers. Though the pads have yet to come out (they will Wednesday), Settle likes what he's seen from both Jeff Lewis and James White.
"I like the ability to learn and retain things," Settle said. "For the most part we don't have to go back and repeat stuff and stay in one area. We're able to be able to put things in in our install. We're throwing the book at them and so far they've been able to handle the volume we've thrown at them.
"You like the fact that you've got smart players."
Early indications are that both players have great speed and quickness, something the team has lacked at the running back position since the days of Lance Smith. With three bowling balls on top of the depth chart, a change of pace back is something the staff likes to see.
"We've talked about that and we're excited about having these guys in the program," Settle said. "They're both quick and have good top end speed. They can bring a little something different than the other three guys.
"Those two guys are definitely guys that will help us here in the future."
So who's faster between those two?
"James White plays faster," Settle said. "I don't know if he is or not, but I know when he sees a seem and accelerates he's gone."