|Running back Montee Ball :: Peter Read Miller/SI|
Montee Ball and James White rose from obscurity last season, but their paths to joining one of the country's most dominant backfields were decidedly different.Ball was admittedly frustrated as the third-string back behind prolific junior John Clay and White during the early part of last year. He questioned his role after not playing in the Badgers' 31-18 upset of then No. 1 Ohio State in mid-October, but the experience became a springboard."My family and coaches told me to stay hungry," Ball recalls. "I asked my coaches why I wasn't getting out on the field, and they showed me. I watched more film than I ever had, [and I started] eating right and really looking at the playbook and where the linemen were blocking."White's journey was smoother. Last season as a true freshman he expected to bide his time before playing and was surprised when, during the season opener against UNLV, then assistant John Settle told him to get in the game. "I didn't realize he was talking to me," says White. "My heart started beating [faster], but I actually had a good first carry."Ball and White combined for 32 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards last season, and each will have the chance to contribute more this year with Clay (who rushed for 14 touchdowns and 1,012 yards in 2010) gone to try his luck in the pros. The powerful Ball dropped 10 to 12 pounds in an effort to break more shoestring tackles and be lighter on his feet, while the quick White is ready to meet defenders head on and not just run away from them. "I've been going hard in the weight room, squatting to become more of a power back," White says. "Whenever I put on my pants now I notice that my legs have gotten bigger."Ball's and White's presence will ease the transition for touted senior transfer Russell Wilson, who threw for 76 TDs in three seasons at N.C. State and will take over at quarterback. On defense new co-coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge preside over a group that must replace its three leading tacklers from a year ago but has seniors Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry back to lead the secondary.Yet some things don't change: The Badgers, with a chance to repeat as Big Ten champs, will go as far as their powerful running game carries them.
While the Wisconsin offense breaks in a new QB, can the defense do a better job of harassing Big Ten passers?
41.5 -- Points per game scored by the Badgers in 2010, the highest average in the conference last year and a school record.
Chris Borland, LB, So. -- Borland's season was cut short by a shoulder injury after two games last year. If he regains his 2009 form -- when he was Big Ten Freshman of the Year -- the Badgers will get a major boost in their ability to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Antonio Fenelus, CB, Sr. -- The defense's overall playmaking abilities improved last year thanks to Fenelus, who led the team in picks (four) and passes defended (11) and was tied for second in fumble recoveries (two). He will lead a stingy secondary. Philip Welch, K, Sr. -- Welch's 315 career points trail only Ron Dayne (426) on Wisconsin's all-time list. The fourth-year starter is also just 12 field goals away from surpassing Todd Gregoire (65) for the most in Badgers history. Peter Konz, C, Jr. -- Konz was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list again this year after starting 20 games for the Badgers over his first two seasons. His leadership should help the Badgers educate a new quarterback.
Brendan Kelly, DE, Jr. -- At 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds, Kelly has the size to make an impact on the defensive line, but injuries have limited him to just 11 games over the last three years. (He redshirted last season because of a serious groin injury.) Fully healed, he's ready to follow up on a spring game in which he showed his ability to pressure the quarterback and was all over the field.
Jake Keefer, LB, Fr. -- A 6-3, 218-pound tackling machine from Baldwin, Keefer had 424 stops (214 solo) at Baldwin-Woodville High and was the first commitment in UW's 2011 class. The outside linebacker was a U.S. Army All-American selection as a senior.This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.