It's no secret that the Wisconsin Badgers have had an astounding tradition at the running back position in recent history.
You can go all the way back to NCAA all-time leading rusher Ron Dayne in the late 1990s. Or you can just count the last three names to lead the Badgers in rushing: James White, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon. All three of those guys have turned in seasons of 1,400 yards or more at Wisconsin in the past two years.
Last season, Gordon and White combined to rush for 3,053 yards and 25 touchdowns. It was a deadly running tandem for opposing defenses. They were both there when Ball was rocketing up the Wisconsin all-time rushing list two years ago, and last season they helped the Badgers earn the eighth-best rushing total in the country. The two even had a touchdown celebration that become a staple on all the highlight shows.
But there's more to this tradition of top-notch ball-carriers than just racking up and incredible amount of yardage.
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The two forged a close relationship, and in addition to that on-field success, White served as a rock for Gordon, helping the younger back, who admitted he can get a little too frustrated at times.
But now White is gone, and Gordon figures to take on a larger percentage of the carries in a season where he's being pegged as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He's quick to admit it'll be different without White around.
“It’ll be different. Me and James were really close," he said last week at Big Ten Media Day. "The year Montee had his big year, me and James, we were fighting for carries. So we understood each other, we understood you’ve got to make the best of everything you get. Our chemistry with each other was unbelievable, and it’ll be the same for me and Corey, as well.”
Corey is Corey Clement, last year's third-stringer who expects to be this year's second-stringer behind Gordon. He had an exceptional season as a freshman last year for getting only 67 carries. He finished with 547 yards and seven touchdowns, including three 100-yard games. And it's Clement who will play a big part in the ongoing Wisconsin running back tradition. Not just because he's the next in line after Gordon, but because Gordon will trying to step up as a leader, to play the same role for Clement that White played for him.
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So while on the field Gordon will be looking to do much of what he did last season, off the field he'll be trying to undergo a big transformation from student to teacher. And he's had his help in this realm, too. Ball offered offseason advice on how to handle big expectations and Heisman candidacy. And White offered his own advice on his way out.
“To be there for your team and make plays and be there for the younger guys," Gordon said of that advice. "James was there, I can say, with me a lot of the time. With me, I really do get frustrated sometimes when I’m not having the game I want to have or I miss a block or when I do this or that. That’s where James really helped me out as a player just telling me, ‘Don’t hang your head down, you’ve got a lot of football left to play.’ And that’s where he came in, and I understand that I’ve got to be that guy for Corey. I can’t hang my head down when I make a bad play. I can’t let that affect the next play.”
On and off the field, it's all part of that Wisconsin running back tradition.