Seizing the moment: His breakout derailed in 2015, Wisconsin RB Corey Clement has rebuilt himself physically, mentally
MADISON, Wis. — They say Daytona Beach is chill. Five months after a spring break trip there, Corey Clement laments that whoever they are got it astoundingly wrong. Most days it was calm until about noon. Then the college kids flooded the area and stampeded over the tranquility, which meant Clement had to look out for himself while also ensuring his girlfriend went unbothered by all the "A-holes," which is about as delicate as he can put it. It was too hectic. Too stressful. A day at the beach was supposed to be, well, a day at the beach.
"I don't need all that hooting and hollering every night," Clement says. "I can't do it. Feel like I'm 30 sometimes, to be honest with you."
He sounds less like a Wisconsin Badger than a Wisconsin snowbird when he clarifies what he is after: Serenity and reliability. That is what will determine if Clement vaporizes the memories of a 2015 season that broke bad in about every way, a year washed out by a debilitating injury, a detached attitude and one regrettable off-field mishap. The carry-to-carry constancy of a 5' 11", 227-pound senior tailback will help decide if the Badgers can survive a hellacious five-game stretch of Big Ten play that begins with a trip to Michigan State on Saturday, the first of three road games and four games against currently ranked opponents .
Already, with Clement missing the last game and a half with an ankle sprain, some old apprehensions have resurfaced. But even if the chaos rolls in like so many unhinged spring break reprobates, even if his final college season threatens to get a bit muddled, Corey Clement must be sound and steadfast enough to carry his team through it. Which means he must be someone altogether different than he was last year.
Before August practices commenced, a sheet of paper appeared in Corey Clement's locker. Across the top, in black block letters, it read: WISCONSIN FOOTBALL FALL CAMP RSVP. It asked the recipient to check YES or NO to an "invitation" to preseason camp, a micro-motivational ploy from the Badgers coaching staff. It set six conditions for participation, asking the invitee if he was willing to approach each day of camp with energy, with persistence, with belief in the process, with toughness and grit, with a mindset to see opportunity and seize it, and with enjoyment. Check YES or NO to each, sign at the bottom.
On the third line of his invitation, Clement saw another message scribbled next to the "belief in the process" question. STAY IN THE MOMENT! it read. He turned to friend and fellow running back Dare Ogunbowale and asked what was written on his card. Ogunbowale said his paper was clean.
Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle had added those four words to the pre-printed form, specifically for his most talented protégé, and specifically because Clement wasn't mentally present and accounted for last season. "In my opinion, he was kind of out there in a fog," Settle says. "They say a double-minded man is unstable—that's what he was. He tried to concentrate on the football thing when he was over here, he tried to keep himself engaged, but not playing, it was hard on him. And then when he wasn't here, he was totally disconnected. It was rough on him. Everybody could see it."
Some of that is understandable. In 2014, Clement was the antsy and intriguing understudy to Melvin Gordon, rushing for 949 yards on 147 carries while Gordon detonated for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns while collecting the Doak Walker Award, unanimous All-America honors and a second-place finish to Oregon's Marcus Mariota in Heisman Trophy balloting. In 2015, with Gordon gone, Clement was to be the next Badgers bell-cow, physical enough to punish tacklers at the point of contact and propulsive enough to score whenever he got his hands on the ball.
As such, Clement had an unambiguous view of how his fall would play out. "I thought I was going to sail right through the season, with flying colors," he says now. "I thought I was going to ease my way into the league, be a potential first-round pick based on the type of potential I had."
He viewed the season opener against Alabama as a referendum on his national profile, mostly because Derrick Henry, the future Heisman Trophy winner, was the lead tailback on the other side. And Clement might have over-invested in the preparation: He strained himself too much before a preseason workout, prompting a sharp pain in his core that first was pegged as a groin issue. By the end of September—after Clement had struggled to 16 yards on merely eight carries against Alabama and sat out the next two games entirely—the diagnosis was updated to a sports hernia that necessitated a surgical fix. For that, Clement spent nine hours across two flights from Chicago to Munich so a specialist could perform the procedure, and ultimately the whole ordeal left him with just four games played and just 221 yards, total, in the season that he was supposed to own.
Miserable over failing to become a nationally renowned star, and inevitably shunted to the side due to injury, Clement withdrew on multiple levels. He kept his football and rehab schedule but was a stranger around the building, hardly ever showing his face in the coaches' offices. "A year ago, he wouldn't be talking to other coaches on the staff," Settle says. "Unless I sought him out, I wouldn't be talking to him, more than likely."
Then came the night of Nov. 7, when Clement threw a punch during a dispute at his off-campus apartment; he was cited by police for disorderly conduct, but he misled coaches by saying he and a security guard were attacked, a lie that came undone with surveillance video and prompted Chryst to suspend Clement for the regular season finale at Minnesota. It wasn't the first time a college kid has made a bad decision, though the onslaught of attention had Clement confused on that much. "That's how it felt sometimes," he says. "I was like, it's not like I got caught with 20 pounds of cocaine or something like that. I threw a punch." Still, he was lucid on how bad it looked, how it dragged down his family's name—his mother's first question, Clement recalls, was a pointed Why did you lie to me?—and how much he needed to reconcile after it.
He wanted to be the big shot Wisconsin counted on. He was going about it all wrong. "I wanted to get back and be a different person, not who I was last fall," Clement says. "I really hated it. I was disgusted with it. It really wasn't me and who I was. I was on the high horse a little bit. I needed to get off. That's when karma comes around and smacked me right back down and said, you're still here at this university and you need to pay attention to it."
Or, as Badgers coach Paul Chryst puts it: "It's unmet expectations, a curveball he hadn't really ever experienced, and how do you handle that?"
Last winter, the reconstruction of Corey Clement began. The physical rebuild was straightforward enough: He did wind resistance work and, over the summer, wore a 50-pound vest while running the Camp Randall Stadium steps, every one of them, twice a week. He reinforced his core and added two pounds without losing any speed. He texted with Gordon about his former teammate's off-season training regiment with Vikings star Adrian Peterson and took as many notes as he dared. "I was like, I'm pretty sure this is top secret if you're working with Adrian Peterson," Clement says. He also learned to say enough is enough, so he wouldn't overwork himself into another injury.
By the spring game, Clement says he was full speed. Settle, meanwhile, wanted to see Clement endure the rigors of August camp to be sure. "Put him out there the second week, put some pads on, start having scrimmage situations. All of a sudden, you see him make somebody miss and— peeew!—he's gone," Settle says. "You're like, O.K., that's the guy. That's the guy we've been waiting to see."
Restructuring Clement's approach to fit the team was just as fundamental. He convinced himself he was guaranteed nothing. "I played as if I was a freshman coming in again with something to prove," he says. Wisconsin changed Clement's off-season workout groups so he would interact with a more varied cross-section of teammates. Settle credits Ogunbowale for effectively reintroducing Clement into the team's general social orbit after a year of Clement detaching from the group. And Clement became a regular in the football offices on the eighth floor high atop Camp Randall, poking his head in, making two or three visits per week instead of being a stranger in his own land. "He needs to come by more," Chryst says with a smile.
There's some self-interest in it, as even Settle concedes: Clement is reconnecting with people who will offer testimony about his character to personnel from NFL franchises performing due diligence on a potential draftee. Mostly, though, Settle believes it is sincere outreach. "He doesn't have to come over," the Badgers assistant says. "He could sleep, stay at his place, do meetings and practice and go back. But he's chosen to come over and be around us. I honestly believe that he realized that by alienating himself, separating himself from the team and the organization, he felt that was not the right thing to do, that there's a better way."
The better way led to a better start. Clement carried 21 times for 86 yards in an upset of LSU to open 2016; he didn't statistically match star Tigers tailback Leonard Fournette's 138 yards, but his team got the win. He followed that with 111 yards in one half of action against Akron. "He powers through everything," Badgers quarterback Bart Houston says. "He just goes. There's no hesitation. He sees something, he's going to attack it. It's always great to have a guy like that."
The momentous question, of course: How many games will Wisconsin have that Corey Clement on the field for? Clement's Week 3 absence due to the Week 2 ankle injury led him to being listed, officially, as questionable for this weekend. The smart bet would be that he takes the first carry now that bigger, better opponents are in store.
As Chryst notes, he has coached Clement in six games the past two seasons. Clement has started and finished one of them. "If you go back and say, what's a good year? That he's durable," the Badgers coach says. "He's capable of being a difference-maker."
Clement admits that rolling that ankle in the first half against Akron created some flashbacks. "When I think about it, it's, Damn, I don't want to come off the field again, what are people going to keep thinking?" he says. Trainers asked him at halftime if he wanted to wrap the ankle and play; Clement ran out of the tunnel but had his mind made up. The upside of proving, again, that he could tote the ball 40 times or break 200 yards was not worth the downside of a longer recovery, not with what was coming.
The morning after that Akron game, Clement was in Settle's office, looking for more. He lamented to his coach: I left a lot of offense on the field. Settle agreed. The pair then worked out some nuances and corrections on the white dry-erase board opposite the coach's desk. "When he touches the ball, and he's on, everybody in the stadium will probably be on their feet," Settle says. "Because it's a good chance it's going to be a touchdown. No matter where the ball is on the field."
Wisconsin needs to be able to count on its senior tailback for all of that, especially now, and Clement knows it.
"If we win these games, what else can you say?" he says of the upcoming slate. "Every game is a motivation game for us. I can't wait to play against Michigan, Michigan State. I dream about running over those defenses. Because that's what I want. I want not only my coaches to see, but my parents and my brother—to let them know I've been focused all off-season getting back to who I really am."
In the lobby of Wisconsin's McClain Center on a recent Monday evening, Clement is at ease, the plastic brace on that left ankle notwithstanding. He listens to far fewer outside voices. He regrets nothing about returning to Wisconsin, despite the agents whispering last fall that he had a second- or third-round NFL draft grade, even with the injury. He has resolved to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. And it's Clement, in fact, who brings up the apartment complex fight without prompting; part of that is knowing it will come up anyway, but it's still a sign he's at peace with that blemish in his past.
If there is one moment from last year he wishes he could return to, though, it is the instant before the injury. Then, he was among the country's prize tailbacks and not an afterthought. He acknowledges a possible disconnect between a half-hour of chatter about being a team guy and an unequivocal desire to be viewed as a top-flight runner on the level of Fournette, or Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, or Florida State's Dalvin Cook. Clement justifies the craving this way: It's competition.
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"You don't ever want to be overlooked," he says. "I didn't hate when Mel was here—it's just that he's Melvin, and you still want to beat out Melvin because it's competition. That's what makes everybody better. Hopefully on draft day, I'll be called ahead of those guys. And those guys want to be called ahead of me. There's nothing wrong with it. That's the nature of it."
Maybe that sounds too close to self-involved for comfort. But consider that the best running back in the nation is, arguably, exactly what Wisconsin needs over the next month. Corey Clement was reminded at the beginning of August to stay in the moment, and he's willing to apply that wisdom to the task at hand. If he is truly dedicated to making a name for himself, if he is at last ready to be the man everyone at Wisconsin relies on, then there is no doubt: His moment is now.