Heading into the 2015 season, most are believing that Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott is the favorite to be a Heisman Trophy finalist and lead the Big Ten on the ground.
While his postseason performance from last year may indicate that he’s a strong candidate, he’s got some competition from a fellow back in Madison.
Last year, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns in his sophomore season. Those numbers aren’t eye-popping, but considering he had that much production behind a 2,500-yard, 29 touchdown back in Melvin Gordon, it carries a little more weight.
The Big Ten isn’t considered to have as many elite running backs as we saw a season ago and most of the praise and accolades are headed Elliott’s way in Columbus. But the tough Buckeye back may not lead the conference in the rushing game by the end of the season.
This week’s three-and-out gives reasons why Wisconsin’s Clement will be the lead back in 2015.
1 – Strength and experience on the offensive line – Wisconsin regularly sports big, physical, and bruising offense lines that allows it to be one of the top rushing teams in the country. Despite a lack of depth for the unit this fall, the starting unit will be as good as anyone in the country and should be able to open plenty of holes for Clement to run through.
Left tackle Tyler Marz and center Dan Voltz will be considered two of the best lineman in the conference next season providing leadership in the trenches. The Badgers’ size and strength will allow them to push around defensive lines as they’ve seemingly done every year for the past decade.
The offensive line was a key factor in the Wisconsin’s 320 yards per game average on the ground with nearly two-thirds of that production coming from Gordon. Numbers in the running game may not be quite as high as they were in Gordon’s record-breaking season but Wisconsin’s offensive line will still be a major asset for Clement and the other backs.
2 – Not many run-stoppers on the schedule – The Badgers already have an advantage playing in the Big Ten West, at least for the time being. That division, loaded with plenty of bad defensive teams, should help aid Clement’s push towards a Heisman Trophy.
An opening-week battle against Alabama will be the toughest test for Wisconsin, as the Crimson Tide finished in the top 10 statistically in total defense, scoring defense and run defense. The strength of Wisconsin’s offensive line and Clement’s true capabilities may not be on full display in that contest but things will get brighter.
The remaining 11 teams on the schedule averaged a total defensive rank of 78th, with the highest being Minnesota who finished 34th in the country in total defense. Considering Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott will have to battle defenses like Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan, Clement should have a much clearer path to the Big Ten rushing title this season.
3 – Paul Chryst’s past knowledge and experience on the sideline – Not only is Chryst an alum and former player for the Badgers, he’s also been the offensive coordinator and head coach of some pretty good running backs.
During his six years in Madison as the offensive coordinator, Chryst was calling plays for guys like John Clay and Montee Ball, two of Wisconsin’s most dominant backs in recent seasons. As the head coach at Pittsburgh, he coached James Conner to a 1,700 yard season with 26 touchdowns as a sophomore.
The guy understands the running game and knows how to win football games at Wisconsin. Clement is under the type of leadership that will allow him to fully utilize his talent and become a better back for the Badgers this fall.
Chryst’s credentials and past experiences should help Clement become one of the most durable and exciting running backs in the conference.