By Tom Lea
During fall camp a year ago you could tell there just wasn't something right about the way Montee Ball was playing. With such high expectations, especially with just John Clay in front of him on the depth chart, Ball seemed content to simply go through the motions. Apparently that's how the coaching staff read it when he slowly saw less and less playing time during the first month of the season.
Freshman James White continued to impress with each opportunity he received and John Clay was simply being John Clay. Ball, meanwhile, was getting used to the sidelines. That is until he was thrust into duty when both Clay and White were injured during UW's scintillating win at Iowa.
At that point everything changed. Ball carried UW to victory in that game and never looked back. Entering that game in Iowa City, UW's eighth tilt of the season, Ball simply hadn't produced that much. After that win, though, Ball carried all the momentum he generated in that game through the rest of the year and nearly finished his sophomore season with 1,000 yards rushing. Had he accumulated four more yards throughout the course of the season, UW would have become the first school in FBS history to have three different running backs reach the milestone in NCAA history.
That's what's so exciting about Ball entering the 2011 season. The fact that he slimmed down to 214 pounds while still maintaining his power, but adding a bit of speed, is absolutely encouraging when looking at the upcoming season, especially after seeing what he did during the second have of the year in 2010. Ball, should he use the momentum he carried a year ago, is going to be in for a monster season as a junior.
Look, the running back position at Wisconsin is seemingly always stacked. So though Ball is atop the depth chart, there will definitely be a stable of guys behind him chomping at the bit to get into the regular running back rotation. But based off what he accomplished a season ago -- 996 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in basically seven games -- one can, and probably should, expect Ball to come back this season even hungrier than he was before.
Even with new quarterback Russell Wilson in the mix, and even though he has a bevy of skills that can help alleviate some of the stress on the running backs, the UW backfield is still going to play a primary role in Paul Chryst's offense. You can still bet Ball will get more than enough carries. When it comes to picking up the short yardage, the yards where a bruising tailback reaches down and deep to move the chains, Ball will be the number one choice to have the ball in his hands.
Look at those games where a Big Ten championship will be won or lost -- Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska to name a few -- and there will be several opportunities for key plays to be had on the ground. Having an upperclassman, and one that is very motivated on top of that in the loop, will do nothing but help the Badgers.
UP NEXT: No. 3 on our list didn't make it too far into the season a year ago. Now that he's healthy, will he be able to make an impact similar to what he did his freshman year?