Too much of a good thing?

first_imgJAKE NAUGHTON/Herald photoGood recruiting typically leads to depth on any team’sroster. The 2008 Badgers can go four deep at the running back position, anasset few teams can proudly boast. Whether or not that number is too large willbe determined in the near future, starting with Saturday’s spring game.The backfield is led by junior P.J. Hill, the 2006 NationalFreshman of the Year. The East Elmhurst, N.Y. native rushed for 1,569 yardsduring his redshirt freshman campaign and, despite being nagged by injurieslast season, Hill was still able to accumulate more than 1,200 yards on theground.Injuries have been a chronic issue for Hill since arrivingin Madison, but the junior feels as healthy as he’s ever felt physically andhopes that can carry over into the fall.“Every day I’m just going out there, working hard. I’m notin the training room anymore, and I’m pretty proud of it,” Hill said.“I’m doing things right in the weight room, I’m taking care of my body,stretching a lot, eating right, getting some things in my body that Ineed.”Hill’s hard work and perseverance have paid off over thisoffseason, as his newfound health has equated to added quickness on the field,something both he and the Wisconsin coaching staff have noticed this spring.“P.J. is the guy right now that’s playing as good as hecan play,” said running backs coach John Settle. “He’s physical, andright now he’s showing a lot of burst at the line of scrimmage, which issomething that he showed flashes of last year. But now he looks quicker. He’strusting things to happen, and he believes what he sees.”Hill’s talent, experience and understanding of the game areduly noted by his coaches, which ultimately gives him the edge over the othercandidates vying for touches in the crowded Badger backfield.“P.J.’s probably the most complete back with having themost reps under his belt, but also being conscientious understandingprotections and being our style back,” offensive line coach and run gamecoordinator Bob Bostad explained. “He puts his shoulder down and gets youextra yards, yet is elusive enough and sudden enough to make that next man missin the box.”Close behind Hill on the UW depth chart is junior LanceSmith. Smith showed flashes of greatness last season, but was only able to playin home games after an off-field altercation involving him and his girlfriend.After being given two alternatives of serving his suspension, Smith opted tosit out the Badgers’ five road games as opposed to their first five games onthe schedule, a decision he wishes he could have back.“I suggested that the away games would be best becausethe first game of the season, you need a reliable back at running back, sothat’s how that situation went down,” Smith explained. “I reallywanted to play in the first game. But if I could go back in time, I’d pick thefirst five games because I believe my team needed me in Illinois and against[Ohio] State.”The Badgers lost both games away from home last season.Of the four backs, Smith is the most versatile of the bunch,which has given offensive coordinator Paul Chryst some options with which toplay.“You’ll see me in a lot of different looks (nextseason),” Smith said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to be successful outof those looks and help the team out.”This spring, Smith has lined up at wide receiver, both outwide and in the slot, and has run some of the spread offense with a few of theUW quarterbacks. Because of his array of skills, Smith isn’t worried about alack of touches come fall.“Last year, I feel like I showed that I have theability to do a lot of special things,” Smith said. “I’m just soanxious to have a full season and show the coaching staff and the fans what Ican do with a full season. Honestly, I feel like Coach Chryst will find a wayto get the ball in my hands, so I’m not worried about how many touches I get. Ihave my own plays and my own sets, so me being on the field won’t be aproblem.”According to Settle, an increase in Smith’s touches couldn’thurt the Badgers’ offensive production.“You do not want to have Lance Smith one-on-one,”Settle said. “If you can get him into one-on-one situations, you’ve got tofeel pretty good as a coach. He’s elusive, he has the ability to make you miss,and he can catch the ball from the backfield and we can spread him outwide.”With Hill’s injury and Smith’s suspension last season, awindow of opportunity opened for then-freshman Zach Brown, one that he tookfull advantage of. The Royal Palm, Fla., native rushed for 568 yards lastseason, including 250 in the regular season finale against Minnesota.Brown has all the tools to become a great Wisconsin runningback, something that his coaches keep stressing.“Zach Brown’s probably our all-around guy,” Settlesaid. “He can play first and second down, he can play third down becausehe understands the pass protection. If he ends up being a third-down guy, we’llplay him in that role. We have no problem getting different guys on the fieldif it’s going to help us win. Zach has shown that he has an all-around game. Heruns the ball well between the tackles and has enough speed to get into thesecondary.”Bostad couldn’t agree more.“Zach Brown has been a great utility back for us,”Bostad said. “The more reps he gets, the more he’s going to step into thatrole of a starter someday. He’s an extremely conscientious kid when it comes topass protection. He’s a patient runner; he runs the ball well to the outsideand he understands the scheme a little bit better. He’s a better perimeterrunner than some of the other guys because he understands blocking schemes andhas natural vision.”Freshman John Clay rounds out the depth chart for theWisconsin running corps. But just because he currently sits at No. 4 doesn’tmean Clay won’t see the field this fall.“He’s beginning to learn the system and put everythingtogether,” Settle said of Clay. “We’re working on consistency withhim. We want him to be able to string five perfect reps together so we candevelop some confidence in him. He’s had some really good days, but we’d liketo see it in scrimmage situations.”If running the football was based solely on physicalabilities, the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Clay would have no trouble finding playingtime on any football team. However, the mental aspects of the game have givenClay some challenges this spring.“John Clay is a guy who doesn’t fully understandprotections as well as we want, but he’s a hard-nosed, downhill runner who willsurprise you with how fast he is and how sudden he is,” Bostad said.“He’s certainly got a tremendous amount of upside. The sky is the limitfor him.”Clay is aware of the necessity for him to improve mentally,and is eager to continue trying and learning.“My time’s going to come,” Clay said. “I needto be patient, know my assignments and make sure I study the playbook. In highschool, I didn’t have to pick up blitzes as much, so I’m learning how to dothat better.”With all the competition and fighting for playing time, itwould be easy for these four backs to be at each other’s throats. But instead,they remain friendly and continue to help each other improve.“We all get along,” Smith said. “It’s notlike, ‘I hate somebody’ or ‘he hates me.’ If somebody does something bad atpractice, we’ll all go up to each other and be like, ‘You need to do it likethis.’ It’s more like a friendly competition. On the field you’re competing,but off the field it’s friendly.”Brown feels the same way.“It’s funny because there’s no animosity,” Brownsaid. “We’re all cool; it’s like a brotherhood, and we’re all out theretrying to help each other. We’re obviously fighting for one position, but weknow that we can help each other out.”The brotherhood is part of the reason why each of these fourdecided to come to Wisconsin in the first place.“That’s one of the reasons why I came here,” Hillsaid. “This school is known for breeding great running backs, so when Icame here, I was like, ‘I want to be the best running back I can be.’ You’vegot Ron Dayne, (Brian) Calhoun and I could be next in line to come out of theUniversity of Wisconsin playing for the Badgers. So, right now, I’m very proudof my decision.”He’s also had some help along the way.“I’m pretty close with Ron Dayne,” Hill continued.“He has my number, and we keep in contact. He told me if I need any adviceto talk to him, and I have no problem talking to him because he’s a veryopen-minded guy, a guy that you can really talk to.”Like Hill, Smith enjoys the tradition of great backs thatexists in Camp Randall Stadium.“It means a lot, that’s honestly why I came here,”Smith said. “Just being able to watch them on TV and be productive on thefield; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I started watching them ineighth grade, so I wanted to come here and be successful, too.”For a coach, having too much depth is never an issue. Butfor a player, depth can certainly affect one’s playing time. All four of thesetalented backs are aware of the current situation, but none have shown anysigns of concern or discouragement — even Hill, who’s likely to see hiscarries decrease from the previous two seasons.“I know those guys can do the job,” Hill said.“I’ll cheer them on; those are my teammates. They have to win the game.I’m on the same team, so I want to win with them.”Brown, too, is enjoying the competition.“I look at it as a good scenario,” Brown said.“We’re all talented and we all push each other. Challenge brings the bestout of everybody. Everything is going to work out, so we’re just lookingforward to see what’s going to happen.”That said, playing time is still very much up for grabs,according to the entire UW coaching staff.“[Playing time will] take care of itself,” Settlesaid. “They understand that there’s stiff competition. They understandthat the guys that compete and produce, those are the guys that are going toplay. We play in the Big Ten; it’s a physical conference, so there’s always achance for injury, so we have to prepare all four guys expecting theopportunity to play. There’s going to be a time where all of them are going tobe forced to play.”Being the running backs coach, it’s also Settle’s job tomake sure that each of his four backs stay fresh at all times.“We tell them to make sure that they’re ready,”Settle said. “If you get five opportunities, you’ve got five opportunitiesto make something happen. It’s not about counting the reps; it’s about makingthe reps count. We’re not dumb as coaches; if there’s a guy that’s hot, we’llride him and they know that.”last_img

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