Montee Ball couldn't stay in college forever. Ball gave the Badgers a big boost last year when he announced that he would stay at Wisconsin for his senior season, and he had another great season, even if he didn't make it back to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
But with Ball off to greener pastures the Badgers need to find someone to replace the solid production he gave them over three and a half years. Luckily for Gary Andersen Wisconsin's stable of running backs is still in good shape, so the storylines we'll see this fall will likely revolve around picking the best player to start in his new offense, instead of searching for a diamond in the rough to pick up the slack Ball left behind.
With that said, here's what you should keep an eye on when Wisconsin's running backs start preparing for the 2013 season.
Will James White or Melvin Gordon emerge as the featured running back?
With Ball out of the picture, the Badgers need to find someone to step up and take the lion's share of the carries. And even with Gordon's breakout performance against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game, White is probably the most likely candidate. The 5-foot-10 senior-to-be has 422 career carries for the Badgers, and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt over three seasons. White still hasn't topped his breakout freshman season when he rushed for 1,052 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, but I think he has less to work on than Gordon and is more of a complete running back at this point. White is at his best when he can use his agility to attack the edges of the field, and as long as he stays healthy I think White will still emerge from fall camp as the team's starter.
However, it would be a mistake to count Gordon out of the race. Gordon is one of the most athletically talented players on the team and he probably has a higher ceiling than White, who is pretty much a known commodity at this point. As we all saw during the Championship Game, Gordon's combination of size, speed, and power makes him a home-run threat on every play. But the Badgers didn't give him many carries as a true tailback last year during the season, so there might be an adjustment period for him when the regular season rolls around.
But in the end, the Badgers might split the carries more evenly than they did last year when Ball was still on the team. The Badgers have two talented running backs on top of their depth chart, and they'll likely want to see both of them on the field as often as possible.
Who steps up as the third running back?
This was looking like an underrated position battles for fall camp, but recently it's become pretty clear that incoming freshman Corey Clement will get a chance to play as a freshman for the Badgers. The Badgers are going to try Jeffrey Lewis out as a safety this fall to address their depth concerns there, and rumor has it that Vonte Jackson has an ACL again and will miss the regular season.
That really clears the way for Clement to get some carries as a true freshman, especially since he brings another element to the table for the Badgers. At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Clement is more of a power back than either White or Gordon. I could see him getting involved in some goal line or short down packages for the Badgers right away, especially if he picks up a few more pounds during summer conditioning and fall camp. We'll see if Lewis can stick as a defensive back, but right now the smart money is on Clement to open the season as Wisconsin's third running back.
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