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July 19, 2011
Badgers' backfield packs 1-2 punch
The friendly rivalry between Wisconsin tailbacks Montee Ball and James White continues when they're playing virtual football, only that version isn't much of a contest at all. Whenever they face each other in the NCAA Football video game, the result's always the same.
"He kills me every single time," Ball jokes.
Their competition on the practice field is much tighter. Ball and White rushed for a combined 2,048 yards and 32 touchdowns last season while making sure Wisconsin continued its march to the Rose Bowl even after 2009 Big Ten offensive player of the year John Clay suffered a knee injury midway through the season.
The duo should assure that Wisconsin again boasts one of the nation's top rushing attacks even without Clay, who left early for the NFL after last season but wasn't drafted. The running game could get even more effective with the addition of former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson.
Of course, that leaves one major question: Which of these two guys is the Badgers' No. 1 back?
If last season offers any indication, the answer could change each Saturday.
"The main thing is to play the guy who gives us the best chance to win each game," says new Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who spent last season as Minnesota's co-offensive coordinator. "That may change from week to week."
That's basically how it worked last season. Clay served as Wisconsin's main back before his health problems allowed White to take center stage. When White had injury issues at midseason, Ball started heating up.
Ball and White developed into a dynamic duo the rest of the regular season. Clay returned for the Rose Bowl and teamed with Ball to rush for 208 yards in a 21-19 loss to TCU.
White finished the season with a team-high 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he gained at least 134 in each of his last three regular-season games. Clay added 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing two full games. Ball rushed for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 777 of those yards and 14 of the touchdowns coming over the final five games.
If Ball had gained just 4 more yards, Wisconsin would have become the first FBS team in history to have three running backs reach the 1,000-yard mark in one season. As it is, Wisconsin heads into 2011 as only FBS program with two active running backs who gained at least 900 yards last season.
"It definitely helps," White says. "You just keep competing every day in practice. You see him break a tackle or make a long run, and you want to make a long run.
"It also helps that when one of us is down, another running back who's just as good as you or better goes on the field. You don't have to worry about losing anything when you're not on the field."
White and Ball traveled a different route to get to the same point. Ball is a junior who arrived at Wisconsin as a four-star prospect after rushing for 8,222 yards and 107 touchdowns at Wentzville (Mo.) Timberland High School. Ball was the Badgers' second-leading rusher in 2009, and he entered last season as Clay's most likely tag-team partner and eventual successor.
White was a three-star recruit who got accustomed to sharing carries as part of a Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas backfield that also featured Gio Bernard, who now plays for North Carolina. White surprised even himself last fall by moving ahead of Ball on the depth chart as a true freshman.
"It was a huge wakeup call," Ball says.
Ball is trying to make sure he never falls out of favor again. He dropped 20 pounds in the offseason, taking him from 230 to 210. The difference was apparent in spring practice.
White (5-10/202) remains the quicker and shiftier of the two backs, while Ball is the more physical runner. But the weight loss has helped Ball add more of a burst without sacrificing his power.
"During the spring, he moved a lot better," Hammock says. "The one thing I explained to Montee is that being physical has nothing to do with how much you weigh. It's a mentality. He's tried to embrace that mentality."
Wilson's addition should make White and Ball even more dangerous. Although Scott Tolzien ranked sixth nationally in passing efficiency while directing Wisconsin's offense last season, Wilson gives the Badgers the type of dynamic playmaking quarterback they've lacked of late. Wilson, a former All-ACC selection, has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and ranked 10th in the nation in total offense last season.
Wilson's passing ability should prove beneficial because opposing defenses no longer can concentrate solely on slowing down Wisconsin's rushing attack. Wilson also is an effective runner in his own right; he rushed for 435 yards and nine touchdowns last season despite getting sacked 39 times.
Ball and White are eager to see how they divide responsibilities in the regular season; each got eight carries in the spring game. Hammock's comment about using whichever player gives the Badgers the best chance to win means the guy who starts the season atop the depth chart won't necessarily stay there.
"We've basically got to wait and see," White says. "Whoever's hot gets the carries. That's the way it should be.
"If someone's rolling, feed them. You can't complain if you have the best person on the field."
Their competition hasn't hindered their friendship at all. Even when White moved ahead of Ball on the depth chart early last season, the situation didn't cause any hard feelings.
"It was strictly competition when he first got here," Ball says. "We didn't talk as much. Then we started talking to each other. He's a great player and a great person. Now, off the field, we hang out. We play video games. We both know we're going to play football and have some fun."
That friendship means Ball and White joke with each other about which player will end up with more yards this season. Fresh off the surprising success of his freshman season, White already has set a particularly ambitious target for his sophomore season.
"I would say my goal is to reach 2,000 yards," he says. "I know that's pretty far out there, but I rushed for [over] 1,000 last year. If I set the bar high, I can perform even better than last year."
That goal would seem virtually impossible for White to reach even if he weren't sharing carries with someone else. In fact, it's the type of number a running back achieves much more often in a video game than in real life.
In this case, though, White's teammate has a real chance of keeping him from his goal.