MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin opened spring practices this month with Montee Ball watching nearby — an odd experience for someone who had been a fixture in the Badgers' backfield since 2009.
As senior tailback James White zipped through a tiny gap in the offensive line and sped toward the end zone in team drills, it became clear that Wisconsin may be just fine with Ball gone after a standout career.
"We're going to come out and still compete each and every day," White said. "Now all of us have an opportunity to show it.
Ball's performance during the past two seasons overshadowed the depth the Badgers had in the backfield, especially with Ball totaling 5,738 all-purpose and an NCAA-record 83 career touchdowns in his four-year career. Last season, Ball won the Doak Walker Award given to college football's top running back after finishing the season with 1,830 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.
But in the early going of the first spring under new coach Gary Andersen, Wisconsin's coaching staff doesn't seem too worried about the running game.
Despite starting just two games in his career, White enters 2013 as the NCAA's rushing leader among active running backs with 2,571 career yards. Next to White is redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon, who averaged 10.0 yards per carry and torched Nebraska for 216 yards on just nine carries in Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.
There's also junior Jeff Lewis, redshirt freshman Vonte Jackson and Corey Clement, a 2013 signee who finished with 6,245 rushing yards, 34 rushing touchdowns and 90 total touchdowns for Glassboro (NJ) High School.
"We are a hardworking group," Gordon said of the tailbacks. "We tried to show that as much as we could last year. Each time one of us got in there, we tried to make the most of the opportunities. People say that we have a good backfield. We believe we have a good backfield. We are still going to strive to get better because we can."
The success of Wisconsin's running backs is essential for the time being, considering the questions that need answering leading up to the Badgers' April 20 spring game.
Most of the offensive line starters are getting used to their fourth position coach in three seasons and the unit lost Ricky Wagner (graduation) and Travis Frederick (junior hoping to be drafted in the NFL). The Badgers have only nine healthy scholarship offensive linemen.
"We're on very thin ice right now with the offensive line as far as young men that are healthy," Andersen said.
Returning are the three starting quarterbacks who led Wisconsin to a 7-6 season a year ago. The Badgers are trying to give seniors Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien and sophomore Joel Stave, as well as freshman Bart Houston, as many reps as possible to see who could run Andy Ludwig's offense.
Wisconsin also has to find receivers, too, as the Badgers' offense was crippled last year without steady passing options behind now-senior Jared Abbrederis.
"We're going to pass the ball a little more, but we're still going to have an aggressive offense," White said. "We're going to want to wear down the defense."
Last year, Wisconsin was the first Bowl Subdivision program to record two 500-yard rushing games in the same season since Nevada in 2009. It's the main reason Andersen has repeated his desire to keep the familiar "ground-and-pound" style, but perhaps enhance it with some read-option and pistol formations to spread out defenses. That means more opportunities for big plays from a running backs unit eager to shine in Ball's absence.
"Me and some other guys have some responsibilities now," Gordon said. "The team is not banking on Montee to make it happen, (so) it's on us and some other guys to step up. It's going to show what type of leadership and what type of character we've got when the time comes."