September 4, 2011

Embarrassment of riches

MADISON - Apparently Montee Ball and James White competed so closely throughout fall camp that the fate of the starting tailback for week one - Ball - nearly rested on the particular side a coin landed on.

Really, Bret Bielema? Your opening day starting running back was nearly decided by a coin flip?

"Thomas Hammock and I had a conversation about two weeks out," Bielema said. "He was asking the question and I said I can bring them both in and we can literally flip a coin."

Ball, UW's eldest tailback on the roster, eventually earned the start against UNLV and didn't look back. He set the tone with three straight carries for 33 yards to start the game and eventually ended that series with the first of four scores.

It seemed as though he picked up exactly where he left off when he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in 2010.

"It looked like Montee, and he didn't really do anything big, but we just felt better with him out of the gate," Bielema said.

When Ball reported to spring camp last March a chiseled and sculpted 215 pounds - - about 20 pounds less than what he played at during the Rose Bowl - - it was apparent the junior was hoping to parlay a successful season as a sophomore into a great one this year.

His 22-yard touchdown run, one where he broke tackles and high-stepped past defenders, was something he never could have done a year ago.

His cutback after catching Russell Wilson's swing pass, such a thing of field vision beauty, allowed the junior to sprint for 63-yards before being drug down inside UNLV's five-yard line.

Again, that new physique is responsible.

"I would have been tackled by those two guys," Ball said in reference to his touchdown run. "I'm really glad that I embraced the challenge of losing weight. Seriously, I'm getting to the defenders a lot faster and making moves a lot faster. Then it was a good read by Russell. I would have made that cut last year but probably not that fast.

"Like I said, I'm glad to see that I embraced the challenge to lose the weight."

Ball's cohort, James White, also had another strong season debut. He, like Ball, rushed for 64 yards. He also turned his only reception into an impressive 40-yard jaunt that nearly went for a touchdown.

As he displayed throughout fall camp, White proved he was able to maintain his elusiveness and shiftiness even though he bulked up considerably from what he was as a freshman.

"That was the goal," White said. "Come out here and execute while trying to keep the mistakes to a minimum. I feel we did that very well. There were still mistakes out there, but we're going to go out there tomorrow and correct those things and just try to get ready for Oregon State."

Even Melvin Gordon and Jeff Lewis made their Badger debut against UNLV. Gordon, a Kenosha native, rushed seven times for 38 yards. Lewis, a Brookfield native, rushed five times for 24 yards.

More importantly - - aside from the fact both those two established their ability and will potentially see more action special-teams wise - - both players dipped their feet in the college football world. They got a taste and now they will know what it takes to succeed when their number is called again.

"That's a great thing to see," Ball said. "They're looking up to me and James. They're watching our mistakes and all that stuff and making sure they know how to correct it. I'm glad to see they got some playing time because they work as hard in practice."

The embarrassment of riches at the position, as it usually is at Wisconsin, makes the job for the running backs coach and head coach a bit easier. It's really tough to go wrong with either of those guys.

Even if flipping a coin is considered as a viable option for naming the starter.

"I didn't actually flip a coin," Bielema said. "Thomas (Hammock) could have flipped a coin without me knowing it, I guess. But he thought Montee was the guy."

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