MADISON — Ron Dayne, Jon Clay, Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. The running backs the created and maintained the holy grail of the ground game that is Wisconsin football.
They all had seasons that made people shake their heads in disbelief. Being in the Heisman conversation, winning the Heisman, breaking touchdown records, rushing for well over 2,000 yards and rushing for 408 yards in a single game. These players all single-handedly moved Wisconsin into football lore.
In recent years, the running game has lacked. 2015 saw a team without a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time in what seemed like forever. Corey Clement tried to get the ground game going again in 2016, rushing for 1,376 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, but even still the running game was not as dominant game in and game out like it seemed to be in previous years.
The problem? It might be the fact that the players are happy sharing the rock.
“I think their mindset going in is that they’d love to have two guys that are 1,000 yard rushers. I want a guy who wants to take over and be the guy,” running backs coach John Settle said.
At times, it’s good to pull for one another, but I have to make sure that as a coach, the competition level stays high. “If that means throwing the freshman in once in awhile, I’ll throw the freshman in,” he continued.
What has seemed to be missing is the desire to be the guy. In 2014, when Melvin Gordon broke onto the scene, there was no question of his desire to be the guy, to be in the spot light and to be remebered.
“When he sees other people doing well it pushes him to try to be better than them,” former teammate Dare Ogunbowale said about Gordon in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
Stories of Gordon being up at 2 or 3 in the morning just to put in more work than his teammates in the backfield showed everybody that he wanted to be the guy, the work horse back carrying on the Wisconsin running back legacy.
This year’s group of running backs includes little in the way of familiar faces: Freshman Jonathan Taylor, sophomore Bradrick Shaw, junior Taiwan Deal and senior transfers Chris James and Rashid Ibrahim.
Shaw is the obvious heir apparent to the running back throne and showed flashes of being a lead back in 2016, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. James and Ibrahim also have shown flashes in spring and fall camp showing an ability to compete for touches come game days.
The players may be getting complacent in their roles as they head into the season though.
“They pull for one another, they want to see each other do well, but they need to understand it’s a competition and the best player’s going to play on Saturdays,” Settle said.
One way that Settle has found a way to get the competition level back up is by mixing up who plays with what unit.
“I don’t want anybody feeling comfortable, feeling like we are going to run with one person all the time, I’ll mix it up,” Settle said. “One day the freshmen might go with the ones and they might go with the twos. So I think competition and competing every time they step on the field are what’s important. I want these guys to play fast, that’s what I want.”
No matter what way you look at it, the Badgers always have talented running backs. The pivot that makes or breaks the group is the constant desire for everyone in that group to be the number one player and compete to one up the guy next to them on the sideline.