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March 2, 2013

Spring preview: Running backs





Think about this for a second- Montee Ball is gone. That means the Wisconsin Badgers are losing the NCAA's all-time rushing touchdown leader, a 2011 Heisman trophy finalist who won the 2012 Doak Walker award as the nation's top running back.

And yet there's no panic on Monroe Street. Many other programs would fret over how they'll replace that kind of production, but not the Badgers.

That's not to say that Ball is a completely replaceable player. The Badgers will miss his leadership and nose for the endzone in 2013, but running back is pretty low on the team's list of concerns this year. But why?

Because of Melvin Gordon and James White, that's why. The duo combined for 1,427 yards on 187 carries last season with 15 touchdowns.

That includes Gordon's insane 9-carry, 216-yard performance against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game, and it goes a long way towards explaining why the Badgers aren't exactly sweating over their running game.

They have another strong stable of players with Gordon, White, Jeff Lewis and Vonte Jackson already on campus, and with another four-star prospect in Corey Clement set to join them in the fall. But even with their embarrassment of riches, the Badgers still have a few questions to answer during spring camp.

Who gets the most carries?

White was the clear No. 2 back behind Ball last season, and had a bounce-back season in his junior year. White finished the year with 806 yards and 12 touchdowns, and was a featured part of the offense as a Wildcat quarterback. He also has a 1,000-yard season under his belt from his freshman year, and certainly has the talent to be the team's featured running back during his senior year. His years of experience with the team could give him a mental edge over Gordon, who was still adjusting to the college game last year.

The thing is, Gordon might be primed to overtake White this year anyway. Gordon's performance in the Big Ten Championship Game was a coming-out party for the redshirt freshman, and it could be a sign that he's ready to take on a bigger role as the featured tailback. The Badgers used Gordon as a complementary piece in their offense last year, but he has one of the highest ceilings on the team. Gordon's combination of size and speed could force the Badgers to give him more carries in his sophomore season.

Will the Barge make a comeback?

This isn't a very pressing question, but it's one that'll be interesting to answer as we move into the 2013 season. The Wildcat-like "Barge" formation was former offensive coordinator Matt Canada's idea, and the Badgers used it well last season with White taking a direct snap. White proved to be an able Wildcat quarterback, and it was a good way for the Badgers to get him on the field last season even with Ball getting the lion's share of the touches.

But while the Badgers will likely still have the bodies required for running the Barge as a specialty package, it's unclear if new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will want to use it in his first season at Wisconsin. Its success last season would suggest he and head coach Gary Andersen will give it a look, but we'll get a better idea of if the Barge lives during spring camp.

Whither Lewis and Jackson?

With White and Gordon leading the way, it's be easy to forget about Lewis and Jackson, who'll both be competing for playing time this spring as well. But Jackson's status is still up in the air- he suffered another ACL tear last season after rehabbing an old ACL tear from high school, and it's unclear what he'll be able to do in the spring. Jackson looked good in non-contact work last fall, and was a highly touted running back coming out of high school as well.

But Lewis is an interesting case to look at. He's reputed to be the fastest of all the Badger running backs, and Andersen has focused on recruiting speedier players after taking the job in December. Lewis might surprise everyone and force his way into the running back competition, but he also might be a candidate for a position change. Linebacker might be an option if the Badgers really want to focus on the 3-4 defense.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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