After backing up James White, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin's Corey Clement is eager to embrace his role as the No. 1 running back.
Clement, then a four-star recruit from Glassboro (N.J.) High, watched the Badgers rush for 539 yards against Nebraska in a 70-31 Big Ten title game rout and knew he was headed to the right place. Though Wisconsin’s backfield may have looked crowded, any school that could produce three backs who went for more than 100 yards—Melvin Gordon rushed for 216, Montee Ball rushed for 202 and James White rushed for 109—clearly knew how to maximize its talent.
“Everybody sees that was a self-explanatory game that Wisconsin produces big numbers when it comes to either having one guy playing or three guys," Clement says.
As the rising junior prepares for spring practice, which begins on March 15, he can embrace an exciting prospect. Whether the Badgers use one back or three, this much is clear: Clement is now No. 1.
Since 2009 Wisconsin has had a back rush for at least 1,500 yards every season except ‘10, when two (John Clay and White) rushed for more than 1,000 yards and a third (Ball) finished with 996. The last time the Badgers didn’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher was '04. Within that span several Wisconsin rushers have moved to the NFL, including Ball (Denver Broncos) and White (New England Patriots). Gordon is set to join them once he is drafted this spring. That period doesn’t include the all-time FBS leader in rushing yards, Ron Dayne, who played from 1995-99.
“You see all the great running backs that have played at Wisconsin and had a lot of success,” White says. “You take a visit there, and they express to you how important running the football is there. They let you know they’re going to run the football regardless.”
Now Clement has the opportunity to be the next man up in the legacy of great Wisconsin backs. It’s a moment he has waited for with as much patience as he could. “My expectation coming in each year was to try to be the No. 1 guy,” Clement says. “I didn’t come into any program just to try to be the backup.”
Though the return of White and Gordon for Clement’s freshman year suggested he was unlikely to assume the starting role, the high school star who set South Jersey sectional records for rushing yards in a game (478), season (2,510) and career (6,245) maintained lofty expectations. Had Gordon left for the NFL after the 2013 campaign, Clement could have gained the starting spot last fall. Instead he played second fiddle to the eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up and carried 147 times for 949 yards with nine touchdowns.
Gordon’s incredible success—his 2,587 rushing yards in 2014 left him 41 short of the FBS single-season record—meant he’d be the top back throughout the season. Yet Clement still had trouble watching the bulk of the carries go to someone else. It was a feeling to which past Wisconsin backs could relate. So, when Gordon set the FBS record for rushing yards in a game against Nebraska on Nov. 15 (Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke Gordon's mark a week later), White sent a text to Clement.
“I said, ‘Your time is going to come.’ I went through sort of the same thing when me and Montee were there,” White says. “There’s no reason to put your head down.”
Clement says he didn’t get too discouraged and learned lots watching White's and Gordon’s success. He took notes on “how to maximize my craft and be the No. 1 guy, because when it comes to Running Back University you’ve got to be the man.”
Those notes left him with a detailed knowledge of White’s shifty moves (“He can get in and out of cuts faster than anybody that I’ve seen”) and Gordon’s burst on the perimeter (“He can hit the outside whenever he feels like it”). Still, Clement says it’s important for him to develop his own style and not simply imitate those who came before him.
“Sometimes I tried to do things that I’m not used to usually doing,” Clement says. “I think I should just learn how to stick to my craft, do what I do and not try to be like anybody else. I tried emulate James sometimes, but that’s not my style of running.”
That doesn’t mean Clement is content with his current skill set. He says that while he is satisfied with his power running between the tackles, he is focused this offseason on improving his speed. He can thank Gordon’s breakaways for the inspiration. “I’ve seen what speed can do,” he says. “Melvin showcased that a lot.”
Clement enters this season with a staff both new and familiar. Coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph return to the Badgers from Pittsburgh, where both worked for the past three years after previously serving as Wisconsin assistants. Four months before Clement committed to going to Madison, Chryst and Rudolph thought they would coach him at Pitt, where Clement pledged before decommitting in October 2012. “I’m glad he did right now,” Chryst jokes.
Both Chryst and Rudolph have seen the success of Wisconsin backs and know how to utilize a star. Panthers back James Conner rushed 298 times last fall (seventh in the country) for 1,765 yards (seventh) with 26 touchdowns (third).
“They actually said, ‘Corey, I hope you like to tote the pigskin,’” Clement says. “I’m just like, ‘I’m for it all the time.’”
Unlike in past years when the line of marquee back succession has been obvious, Clement’s heir remains unclear. Returnees Dare Ogunbowale, Caleb Kinlaw and Taiwan Deal and true freshmen Jordan Stevenson and Bradrick Shaw will compete for carries. Clement is ready to subject whoever emerges as the No. 2 and 3 backs to the same experience he had.
“The players behind me are just going to have to respect that the playing time is in my hands now,” Clement says.
If his tenure as the No. 1 back is anything like those of his predecessors, Wisconsin should be just fine.