MADISON - Since setting lofty expectations after reeling off a 1,500-yard, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, season a year ago, John Clay has been trying to live up the hype he's created.
Midway through 2009, especially with the emergence of James White, Clay has heard whispers of doubt topped with rumors circling around his play throughout campus.
And he's not for it.
"(I've heard) I'm not the old me," Clay said following Tuesday's practice. "I'm not the same anymore or they're saying I'm not producing like I did last year."
Maybe his 111-yard, three-touchdown day against Minnesota was what the junior tailback needed.
"I'm just trying to go out there and prove to people what I'm capable of doing," Clay said. "I'm just trying to stop the talking about these rumors or what not. I just want to go out there and produce for my team and that's all."
Clay is producing for his team through the midway point of the season. He has the most carries, the most yards and the most touchdowns of anyone on the team. He also has the highest per-game average (115.3) and a six-yard-per carry clip that isn't too shabby.
But still, though Clay ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (first among running backs), many doubters still seem to think Clay's ankles aren't ready for the rigors of a Big Ten schedule.
The truth of the matter is that Clay's two surgically repaired ankles have paved way for him to rush for more yards (692) this year through six games than he did at the same juncture a season ago (641).
And the best may be yet to come.
"They're doing good," Clay said. "It's just when I get knifed on them and they go straight down and shoot at my ankles it gets a little tender after a while. Then I take a little break and the throbbing will go away and I'm full go."
For Clay, having a complementary back such as James White is of the utmost importance. It gives him an opportunity to keep the ankles as fresh as possible so he can produce at the highest of levels when he's in there.
At this juncture, Clay says his ankles are about 95 percent healthy. He still hasn't reached full go with the ankles and he's still playing pretty solid football. The visual difference from the Michigan State game to the Minnesota one was stunning.
He was more confident making cuts and ran with a downhill, powerful attitude that enabled the reputation he has as a bruising runner.
"I feel that I'm getting more comfortable," Clay said. "I feel like I'm able to cut better and that I'm getting back to 100 percent."
When Ohio State comes to town this weekend as the nations No. 1 team, Clay insists he has a chip on his shoulder after his 59-yard performance against the Buckeyes a season ago.
This, if any, is the time for Clay to put everything together and have his best game of the season.
"We kind of messed up and had turnovers in the first half of that game," Clay said. "Then it got out of hand. We take pride in not turning the ball over. This week, we're looking forward to starting fast and trying to finish out four quarters."