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August 12, 2009

Running back competition high

MADISON, Wis. - John Clay is about as physical as one can be at the running back position. When he motors up, it is nearly impossible to tackle him above the waist as many defensive players have found out.

But, like every other running back in the game, he is capable of being tackled around the ankles, and that has been the source of some pain for the 245-pound back in the past.

Knowing that, the Wisconsin coaching staff, particularly running backs coach John Settle, would like to see Clay limit the impact of the hits he has taken, without taking a backseat to contact.

"We're not going to shy away from contact," Settle said. "We're going to attack people downhill. But if he's on the boundary, sometimes with two guys coming at you, sometimes it's easier to step out then try to take on two guys. Most guys are going to be going at his legs, so step out, save the hit, let's line up and let's do it again.

"But everything we do we're going to be physical. Whether it's blocking or running. But, we're going to be smart at the same time."

Ever since spring camp, one of the most questioned topics surrounding Clay is his weight. Now, with fall camp underway, the redshirt sophomore is playing around 240 or 245 pounds. While that weight compliments his bruising style, Settle is still a bit concerned about it preventing the redshirt sophomore from withstanding a long, physical season.

"It's a concern," Settle said. "We want to get the pressure off his ankles, his knees and that type of thing. But it's something that he's aware of, he's worked on and he's been able to keep it in check these first couple of days. So, as we go on, more than anything, that's what's going to limit him in camp, if his weight starts to go up and limit his reps so to speak.

"Right now, he's showing good burst, good ability to cut. He doesn't show any problems with his ankles from the spring, with his knees, everything looks fine. He's playing fast and I like that."

Brown back to freshman form:

As a freshman, Zach Brown made an immediate impact as P.J. Hill's backup. In the final game of the 2007 season, Brown rushed for well over 200 yards against rival Minnesota in the Metrodome. However, as year two in the program rolled around, Brown did not have quite the impact he had as a freshman.

Now, though, as the bona fide No. 2 rusher on the projected depth chart, Settle is hoping Brown reverts to his freshman ways as a junior.

"I expect to see the guy that we saw as a freshman," Settle said. "He's come out and in the first couple of days he's been that Zach Brown. The thing I talked to him about in the offseason is that he's the veteran of the group. I wanted him to take the leadership role. One thing he's taken pride in is that Montee Ball, as a freshman, is watching him practice. So, he's showing him how to do it.

"I like his approach, I like the intensity, I like the way he's attacking the defense, the way he's carrying himself and teaching the young guys. I couldn't be more pleased with him right now. I look for that to be a big-time race."

The Ball is in your court:

True freshman Montee Ball has all the credentials. He was a highly touted recruit and holds the Missouri prep record for most career rushing yards in the state's history. So it should come to no surprise that Ball has entered camp and made an immediate impact.

"He (Ball) was here all summer, so he was able to be around the guys, learn some of the language and verbiage," Settle said. "He learned some of the playbook so he's given himself a chance to compete from day one. When you come in and you weigh 225 pounds, that helps as well."

Though Ball was receiving plenty of attention from many major programs including Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Stanford, Iowa State and a few other Big Ten schools, he chose Wisconsin largely because he felt comfortable with the style of offense the Badgers run.

"The thing I think that helps him the most is that he played this style of offense in high school," Settle said. "The only thing he has to do now is figure out what words mean what and just apply it that way. But he's come out and he's a ball of energy, he's been attentive and for the most part we haven't had to repeat things over and over. He picks things up.

"Now the biggest thing is can he remember day one when we hit day 10?"

Thought it's early in camp, talk of redshirting true freshmen has begun. Though Ball is very talented, he has to prove that he can learn the playbook enough to pass at least one or two backs in front of him to stay away from redshirting at this point.

"If I had to make a statement today, he's got to prove to us that he's the third best guy or he's the second best guy," Settle said. "He's got to be able to beat somebody out. Right now, guys are playing so well it's anybody's guess whose going to line up back there on opening day Sept. 5th.

"But we're excited about the guys we have in the backfield. All of them bring something different to the table and right now, I like the way they are competing against each other."

Can Erik Smith hold up?

During spring camp, one of the more dynamic and interesting players was Smith. He is the prototypical change-of-pace back the Badgers were missing at points last season. But, unlike the rest of the Badger backfield, Smith possesses a smaller body, one that has Settle wondering if he will be able to hold up throughout the season.

"The first couple of days he's looked good," Settle said. "But the pads haven't come on yet. Once the pads go on and we start to hit, can he hold up? Will his body break down? He's not the big guy, the 225-pounder, like most of the guys we have are. So what can he give us, how much can his body take once we start two-a-days?

"But I like what he brings to the table and that speed he brings to get to the outside. He catches the ball well out of the backfield so he gives us something in that area. He's a good football player that needs to prove to us what he can do as a football player."

Plenty of fullbacks:

With the news coming Monday that Dex Jones would no longer be with the program, many started to wonder who would fill the fullback position. However, with three players (Bradie Ewing, Sam Spitz and Mickey Turner) capable of fulfilling that spot, Settle has liked what he's seen.

"I believe we have three guys that are going to be able to do some great things to help us win ball games."

It seems Ewing will play a role similar to what Bill Rentmeester provided a season ago. He will be capable of rolling into the flat and catching some balls as well as a worthy blocker. Meanwhile, Spitz, who is very physical at the fullback position, is continuing to find where he fits in.

"Sam is a guy that does not shy away from contact, so right now, he's taking first and second down reps because we're running the ball," Settle said. "So he's short-yardage, goal line. Right now, he's trying to find a role kind of similar to what Bradie did last year. If it's short yardage or goal-line, he's got to find a niche."

Finally, and though he's listed as a tight end, Turner figures to be a major role in the fullback position as well.

"Mickey Turner is a guy that came in last year and has proven that he can do it," Settle said. "He's a guy that has kind of taken over that spot right now. We got two guys that are good football players that are pushing him. So he knows he can't let up, plus I like his leadership."

The following is the audio from Tuesday's interview with Settle:
Settle, 8/11/09


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