Playing running back at Wisconsin comes with certain expectations, a high standard of performance. Manning feature-back duties doesn’t just come with the responsibility of carrying a run-based offense; there is over six decades of excellence a No. 1 Badger back must meet.
Take the pressure of living up to the standards set by predecessors Alan Ameche, Ron Dayne and Montee Ball; add being the focal point of the offense under a new coaching regime; then multiply that by following in the footsteps of Melvin Gordon, who had the greatest statistical campaign in Wisconsin history.
The result is the pressure Corey Clement faces in 2015, but the junior from Glassboro, New Jersey, embraces it.
“Every time I go out, I’ve got to think as if Melvin were right next to me. If he’d probably run 10 yards, I’ve got to run 20,” Clement told the Associated Press last month.
Clement has already flourished while playing in long shadows. He flirted with the 1,000-yard mark as Wisconsin’s second option behind Gordon, averaging 6.5 yards on 147 carries.
No longer will his production be the change-of-pace blows delivered after Gordon’s haymakers left defenses staggering. Clement’s performance sets the stage for the rest of Wisconsin’s offense — an offense that is something of a mystery heading into the new year.
Since Russell Wilson’s departure following the 2011 season, Wisconsin has had a revolving door at quarterback.
That was also new Badgers head coach Paul Chryst’s last season as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator. Chryst spent six seasons in that role under Bret Bielema, in that time implementing a multifaceted rushing strategy that produced multiple 1,000-plus-yard rushers.
Chryst’s philosophy starts with a reliable workhorse, which generated some monster numbers from Ball in 2011, and Pittsburgh running back James Conner in Chryst’s tenure as head coach there.
Chryst knows Clement’s ability as a No. 1 back — the coach recruited Clement to Pittsburgh and received his verbal commitment in 2012.
Though Chryst’s best offense was the 2011 incarnation, with dual-threat playmaker Wilson behind center working in tandem with Ball, the Badgers didn’t need a top-tier quarterback to thrive.
Wisconsin averaged 41.5 points per game in 2010 with Scott Tolzien at quarterback and a trio of ball-carriers shouldering much of the load. Running backs Ball, James White and John Clay all hovered around 1,000 yards, while Tolzien was the picture of consistency, completing more than 72 percent of his pass attempts.
The Badgers simply need stability at quarterback to be explosive in 2015, so long as one of Wisconsin’s other backs emerges to be the Clement to Clement’s Gordon.
Redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal is an intriguing candidate who fits the mold of past Wisconsin running backs. At 6-foot and over 220 pounds, Deal is reminiscent of the big backs like P.J. Hill and Clay that Chryst showcased routinely in his tenure as Wisconsin offensive coordinator.
Ultimately, however, it’s going to be Clement drawing comparisons to the backs of Wisconsin’s past. And much like Gordon before him, Ball before Gordon, Dayne before that and all the way back to 1954 Heisman winner Ameche, Clement will blaze his own trail.