For John Clay, it was as simple as a three carry, 52 yard performance against the Michigan Wolverines in 2008. For Zach Brown, it came in the form of a two touchdown, 250 yard massacre of Minnesota in 2007 filling in for an injured P.J. Hill. For both highly touted recruits, it was that breakthrough game where they became less like an abstract scouting report and more like a true contributor to the Badgers' backfield. For Montee Ball, it came last week with 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Bloomington that helped his team escape with a narrow 31-28 victory.
Ball graduated Timberland High School in Wentzville, Mo. in 2009 having broken every one of the school district's rushing records. His mind boggling statistics included 995 carries, 8,222 rushing yards and 107 touchdowns. It was no surprise, then, that numerous Big Ten, Big XII and even a Pac-10 team came calling when he became an eligible recruit.
Knowing full well that only a year of eligibility separated him from soon-to-be featured back John Clay, Ball chose Wisconsin over Iowa, Iowa State, Missouri, Northwestern and Stanford.
""When I made my official visit, it was the perfect fit for me. [Wisconsin] runs the same style offense I did in high school so I felt it would be a smart idea..."" Ball said.
When Ball arrived on campus, he faced the challenge of making his presence felt on a team where redshirt sophomore John Clay and junior Zach Brown had already established themselves as the future of the Wisconsin backfield. Redshirt freshman Erik Smith posed yet another road block to Ball breaking into the rotation.
With a stable of capable running backs on their roster, the Badgers' coaching staff toyed with the idea of redshirting Ball and allowing him to mature for an extra year in the system before battling for playing time. Ultimately, head coach Bret Bielema decided not to redshirt Ball and it's now apparent that decision has paid off.
""Coach decided that I can keep the chains moving...it's a great feeling,"" said Ball. ""I sweat everyday with my lineman and my teammates and I just like to see them smile when I score a touchdown.""
There were certainly growing pains for 5 foot 11 inch Ball as he did not see playing time in the first four games of the season and was held to just five yards on four carries in his debut versus Minnesota. According to Ball, though, the competition for playing time has helped him through the difficulties of learning a new playbook and recognizing Big Ten defensive schemes.
""They each teach me different things. Clay teaches me tenacity and strength... [with] Brown, it's footwork...they're kind of like family to me.""
Ball's hard work and determination has helped jump him into a comfortable position second on the depth chart behind Clay. Running backs coach John Settle acknowledges that Clay is safe right now as the starter, but Ball's performance has definitely caught the attention of the coaching staff.
""John has established himself as a starter...when he needs a breather, we've inserted Montee because of the things that he's shown and the things that he's done with the opportunities he's gotten,"" said Settle.
While Ball's carries have increased and his potential has become evident, Settle feels as if a healthy sense of competition for playing time has developed in practice among the Wisconsin running backs.
""The one thing that guys understand at this level [is] playing time... if you threaten a guy with a lack of playing time, it gets their attention... it's a business where you have to produce.""
While many teams both around the Big Ten and around the country have converted to spread offenses, the Badgers appear content with their classic, run between the tackles style of play. Wisconsin's unrelenting commitment to a strong running attack has definitely paid off. The Badgers currently rank second in the Big Ten, behind Saturday's opponent Michigan, with over 205 rushing yards per game.
When the 2009 season comes to a close, Clay will still have two years of eligibility remaining. Ball, the heir apparent to the first slot on the depth chart, will have, at the least, one full season (depending on whether or not Clay enters the NFL draft following his junior year) before he assumes the role of starting running back. Until such a time, Ball will maintain the attitude he has had all along.
""Whenever my number's called I'm just going to produce. I just do what I've got to do,"" Ball said.