April 20, 2010

Post spring camp: Running Backs

MADISON - Asked to assess his performance during spring ball fresh off his two-touchdown performance in the annual spring game, Montee Ball didn't hesitate to discuss.

And his answer was somewhat surprising.

"To be honest," Ball explained. "I'm really disappointed in my growth. But like I said, I still have the summer to improve and I'm really going to take it to heart and really come out next fall and show people what I have."

Ball, who received the majority of his reps with the No. 1 offense was really the feature back as John Clay sat out all spring as he recovered from ankle surgery. At times, especially early in camp, the sophomore back looked explosive while hitting the holes and packed a punch when taking on a tackle.

Still, the young tailback had problems with his reads and making strides through the playbook.

"I would say my reads and stuff like that," Ball said when asked what he was disappointed with. "I'm still struggling quite a bit in that. I'm going to take this summer seriously and come back in the fall ready to take the load."

When the team participated in a Saturday scrimmage prior to spring break, it seemed as though Ball suffered a shoulder injury that really plagued him the rest of the camp.

As a result, Ball was on the wrong end a couple fumbles during the remainder of camp, one in the scrimmage and another in the spring game, that had him frustrated about his shoulder injury.

"It's a separated AC joint or whatever," Ball said. "It's going to be nice now (with time off), it's extremely painful."

With only Ball and Zach Brown listed on the depth chart during spring camp, as well as fullback Bradie Ewing and stop-gap body filler Kyle Zuleger occasionally filling in, the depth at the running back position was also one of dire need.

So, when Ball initially suffered a shoulder injury, he was allowed a green, no contact, jersey when the team returned to practice the following week. Considering the amount of pain Ball was enduring, his performance in spring camp maybe became more intriguing.

Though he struggled to hold onto the ball at times, Ball proved he is a capable runner and solid back up option to Clay when fall camp opens in August.

Brown, entering his senior year, also seemed to fair well in fall camp. After an up and down career, one that saw him rush for 250 yards at Minnesota as a freshman, it seems as though Brown has focused himself on a strong final season.

"Anytime you can get reps you're always getting better," Brown said early in camp. "That's just how I'm looking at it. As Clay is out, I'm able to get more reps and I'm able to work on my craft as a running back."

Brown, who continued to show flashes of potential throughout camp, has translated that mindset onto the field. He ran with power, speed and athleticism that helped him maneuver opposing defenders and pick up crucial yardage, sometimes in crucial third down situations.

Though it seems as if Brown is stuck as a third down back, another strong performance in fall camp, similar to the one he had in 2009, and Ball could factor into the rotation yet again.

If nothing else, the depth at running back, with only three true backs on the roster, not including incoming freshmen James White and Jeff Lewis, chances are Brown will get plenty of reps in his final go round with the Badgers.

"I think his intentions are right and he's got to approach it like that," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said towards the end of fall camp. "Every time you come out here, and if you're a senior, you really have to certainly be in tune to that. There's a great chance to get a lot of work and we need a lot of work. So I've always liked the way Zach goes about it.

"He's just got to learn that every time he gets a rep and sees a rep. We need that whole group to get better."

Perhaps, maybe more important than anything else, both the play of Ball and Brown this spring will force Clay to shape into form pretty quick come fall if he wants to secure his role as the starting running back. The competition will be strong come fall camp at the tailback position, and the depth will be enhanced with the return of Clay.

Finally, in wrapping up the running back position, Zuleger needs some recognition. As a defensive back, Zuleger was able to step into the running back position and help keep the other tailbacks fresh. For the most part, the freshman succeeded. He may not have the prototypical Wisconsin running back body, but he ran like he did.

Effort was never a problem and as a result, he was able to help the offense progress throughout the spring.

"It's cool to see Kyle Zuleger in there," linebacker Kevin Rouse said. "I think we just threw him back as a running back and he's pretty good. That just says a lot about your offensive line, too."

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