Spring preview: Running backs

MADISON, Wis. - Melvin Gordon won't know if passing on the NFL Draft for another season with the Badgers was the right decision for about a year, but my bet is that head coach Gary Andersen breathed a sigh of relief when the redshirt sophomore broke the news to him.
Because for a team that leans so heavily on the running game, the Badgers would have been surprisingly thin at tailback if Gordon made the jump to the NFL. Wisconsin's next-most experienced running back is Corey Clement, who received 67 touches as a true freshman last year. No one would deny that Clement has talent, but the prospect of putting so much weight on his shoulders so early cannot have been very appealing to Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
Getting Gordon back for at least another season means the Badgers can focus on answering a few other question marks at running back this spring. They'll be at less than full strength until Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw arrive on campus this fall, but here's what I'll be looking for when the Badgers open up spring camp on March 5.
"I love the three running backs," Andersen said about Deal and Kinlaw, in addition to Ula Tolutau, on Signing Day. "10,000 yards out of three kids in high school. And they're again, as much as they're different, they're still the same. They're highly competitive young men and expect to come in and compete with Melvin and compete with Corey. That's pretty difficult to do, but they're wanting to get that done."
How will Thomas Brown coach his new position group?
For the first time since 2011 the Badgers will break in a new running backs coach this spring. Thomas Hammock took a job with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens on Feb. 5, and Andersen hired Marshall's Thomas Brown as his replacement.
At just 27, Brown is the youngest member of Wisconsin's coaching staff, and has just three years of coaching experience on his resume -- only two of those years came as a full-time position coach. His narrative so far is that the Badgers hired Brown in large part because he has extensive recruiting ties to his home state of Georgia, but when spring camp opens we'll get our first look at just what kind of coach the Badgers got when they hired him.
Hammock was a demanding position coach who got the most of out Montee Ball and James White during their careers, and it will be interesting to hear just how similar or different Brown's coaching style is. Just like when Andersen came in as head coach, Brown probably isn't going to come in and try to re-invent the wheel.
How will Gordon's usage change as the primary running back?
Gordon and White split carries pretty much down the middle in 2013, but I don't think the distribution is going to be so even in 2014. Gordon averaged 7.8 yards per carry on just under 16 carries per game, but with White out of the picture I think you'll see Gordon get at least 20 carries per game.
Gordon got most of his carries as a traditional tailback in 2013, and that won't change now that he's Wisconsin's primary back, but I am interested to see what they do with Gordon's jet sweep play. When White was on the team the Badgers would split Gordon out wide as a wide receiver at times and give him the ball as he was motioning over to the other side. But that play was effective in no small part because defenses still had to respect a traditional power run from White. If the Badgers decide to hang on to that play Clement will have to provide some balance out of the backfield, or else defenses will just key on Gordon and shift a linebacker or defensive back over to meet up with him near the line of scrimmage.
Gordon will also need to step up his game as a pass-catcher. White finished the season tied for second on the team in receptions, and caught most of his passes on short throws behind the line of scrimmage. Joel Stave depended on those screen passes to open up the middle for Wisconsin's running game, and Gordon will have to show he can be depended on after catching just one pass in 2013.
Which running back will get the most reps?
I should have included an asterisk up with that last question, because we're only going to learn a lot about Gordon's new role as Wisconsin's primary tailback if he sees the field. And right now I'm not sure how many reps the Badgers will give Gordon this spring.
Look, I love football, but compared to fall camp a team's spring passes don't carry a whole lot of weight. Some players are still rehabbing from offseason surgeries when March rolls around, and coaches will rest established players because they are known commodities and don't want to risk any injuries.
The Badgers are no different -- they're going to practice without a few offensive linemen this spring, and I'd be surprised if Gordon got a lot of work. The Badgers already know what they'll get out of him, so there's no reason to risk his health by overworking him this spring.
And if that weren't enough, I've heard the Badgers feel similarly about Clement, who impressed them all through fall camp and the regular season. So if that's the case, we're looking at a situation where the running back reps are very diluted, with Jeffrey Lewis and Austin Ramesh getting in on the action. Either way, with Deal and Kinlaw still in high school the Badgers might be working with a short bench this spring even though Gordon put off his jump to the NFL.
Finally, look for starting fullback Derek Watt to get some work at H-back this spring. The junior-to-be has proven he has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and should see his responsibility expand in 2014.
Projected Depth Chart (Tailback)
Melvin Gordon (expected to be limited)
Corey Clement (expected to be limited)
Jeffrey Lewis
Austin Ramesh (will also work at fullback)
Projected Depth Chart (Fullback)
Derek Watt
Derek Straus
D.J. Spurling
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for on the network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.