April 21, 2009

Post spring camp: Running backs

MADISON, Wis. - John Clay opened some eyes early in camp when he tipped the scales at 247 pounds. Clay, who has always been a bigger mold of back, will be a focal point of the Wisconsin offense this fall as former Badger P.J. Hill moves to the next level. But if anything was learned through spring, it's that Clay, because of his size will be tackled low.

Thus, the ankle injury that nagged him all spring could become a recurring problem as the season progresses.

"He's a big body, so everybody's going to tackle him low," UW head coach Bret Bielema said regarding Clay. "He's aware of that, he has to be guarded for it but bottom line is its just part of being the size that he is."

Clay only missed one of the 15 allotted practices this spring, but his reps were relatively limited on occasion due to his chronic ankle issues. But still, his power was clearly recognizable, but his speed and shiftyness was hampered due to his tender ankle.

Thus, the door was opened for both Zach Brown and Erik Smith to gain plenty of reps throughout spring ball. Brown, who received limited reps his sophomore year in comparison to his freshman campaign, looks to of added bulk to his frame.

He runs with plenty of power and has speed capable of breaking for big plays. He runs with the ball securely in hand, something that Clay seems to be less concerned with, and flashes good hands on screens and check downs from the quarterback. He will be a solid No. 2 back for UW this fall, and will likely see his carries increase.

Smith was arguably the standout player this spring. He is a slippery back that has explosive ability on every play he touches the ball. During one of the early Saturday scrimmages, Smith scored on three separate occasions against the defense when in red zone drills.

When he gets on the edge, he is the fastest of the trio of tailbacks on the current Badger roster. As the third option of the tailback core, the young and speedy Smith will be a nice compliment to a trio of backs that was lacking at points last season.

"At the tailback position, I really felt John Clay made some strides just knowing what to do," Bielema said. "But the guy that is exciting and jumps out at you is Erik Smith."

During the spring game, Smith, who came in relatively unknown and utilized his redshirt option last fall, was able to showcase his talent to the estimated 23,500 fans in attendance. On one play, he took the handoff, found a seam on the outside and broke up the sideline for a 43-yard sprint before being brought down by Marcus Cromartie.

"What I really like," Bielema said after the game. "Erik Smith, if he just has a little sliver of room, he can really get through there. And then he has a big boost."

Prediction:

I don't think there is any doubt that Clay will receive the majority of reps this fall assuming he can stay healthy. He has stated that he would like to get down to 235 pounds before the season begins, and if he does that he has All-Big Ten potential written all over him.

But behind him, Brown and Smith will also receive carries. Both of those backs are great compliments to Clay and will give him a breather when needed. In 2008, the backs lacked the speed runner when Lance Smith was dismissed from the team. This season, it seems they will have that type of talent back with Smith.

Depth Chart Prediction:

-John Clay, SO
-Zach Brown, JR
-Erik Smith, FR



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