Ever since Wisconsin athletic director and former head coach Barry Alvarez paced the sidelines, the Badgers have established themselves as one of the premier running teams in the country. A massive offensive line coupled with athletic yet powerful tailbacks have led the program to six Big Ten championships and as many Rose Bowl appearances since Alvarez’s arrival in 1990.
However, 2013 might be a different story. Montee Ball, the NCAA leader in touchdowns, has departed. While the Badgers will have plenty of bodies on the depth chart, a key question remains: Is this backfield group slim in talent?
The Badgers have had a luxury most programs would die for, possessing both depth and talent at the running back position, a vital aspect to the traditional pro-style offense Wisconsin utilizes.
Take for example the 2010-’11 season. The running backs consisted of then-redshirt junior John Clay, then-sophomore Montee Ball and then-freshman and current senior James White, who all rushed for over 1,000 yards and combined for an unforeseen 48 touchdowns.
Last year, that trend was somewhat bucked, as the running attack was focused squarely around Ball—for good reason, obviously—which left White and then-redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon in the dust within the rotation. Despite that, the unit still managed to accumulate a combined 3,251 yards and 37 touchdowns, including a breakout performance in the Big Ten Championship against Nebraska, where they rushed for a whopping 527 yards and eight touchdowns.
After three years of waiting under the wings of Clay and Ball, White is finally the leader in the clubhouse, while Gordon has another year of experience under his belt to show fans and coaches alike his combination of speed and strength.
Four hundred twenty-two carries, 2571 yards, 6.1 yards per carry and 32 touchdowns. If you take a quick glance at those impressive career statistics, would you believe me if I told you those numbers reflected a running back who has never been a starter at a major Division 1 football program? Of course you wouldn’t.
Tailbacks at Wisconsin don’t have to be the feature back to put up those kinds of numbers, and White had to find that out the hard way during his first three years on campus.
“James White, at almost any other school, would be a two- or three-year starter as the featured guy,” ESPN Big Ten writer Adam Rittenberg told The Daily Cardinal. “He may never have that role at Wisconsin just because of the depth they’ve had over the years.”
Finally, at least on paper, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native has the role many of his predecessors have carried out with the utmost level of success through the years. However, he may be a different breed than those who went before him.
While guys like Brent Moss, Ron Dayne, John Clay and even Ball were traditionally I-formation, run-between-the-tackles tailbacks, White is a legitimate threat out of the backfield in the passing game and possesses breakaway speed off the edges.
Moreover, within Wisconsin’s offensive landscape, White’s versatility will help the Badgers next year, as the current wide receivers have yet to prove themselves as formidable options in the passing game, other than redshirt senior Jared Abbrederis.
“[White] will have a big role in the offense, no matter what,” Rittenberg said. “Whether or not he rushes for 1,000 yards or 1,200 yards or 1,500 yards, I think he’s going to put up pretty good numbers, especially if he can also broaden his role as a guy coming out of the backfield in receiving.”
It has yet to be determined how White will fit into offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s playbook. Nonetheless, when the Badgers hit the field for their first offensive drive in 2013 against the University of Massachusetts, number 20 will finally be in the starting role.