For the past two years, it's been all about Montee Ball when a conversation strikes up about the running game of the Wisconsin Badgers—not to say that it isn't for good reason.
Ball set numerous NCAA and school records during his four-year tenure in Madison, including the Wisconsin single-season and career NCAA records for total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns. Last season, there was a concerted effort to pound the rock with Ball even more than in 2011, the year that he tied the NCAA record for the most touchdowns in a single season.
As the country marveled at Ball's significant achievements, backup running back James White was an innocent bystander, contributing when his name was called, albeit not as often as it deserved to be, while the Badgers struggled with inconsistency throughout the 2012 season.
White, a 1,000-yard rusher his freshman year, will finally get his chance to be the feature back at Wisconsin for his senior season, as Ball will enter the NFL draft.
It remains to be seen if White will continue to be used at different positions like he was last season. Former offensive coordinator Matt Canada often split White out wide and also used him in a Wildcat-like formation called "The Barge." Either way, White will be carrying the ball more than 125 times, his total for the 2012 season.
On nine different occasions, White didn't even crack double digits in rushes, including in the Rose Bowl, where he was used primarily in "The Barge" formation to give Stanford's stingy front seven a different look.
With the talent that Wisconsin had in the backfield last season in Ball, White and Melvin Gordon, the Badgers should have given White more looks at times to spell Ball and keep him fresh for late-game situations.
Now, former head coach Bret Bielema is at Arkansas, and in steps Gary Andersen, giving Wisconsin a fresh start of sorts to go along with White at tailback.
Don't expect the notorious running game of the Badgers to take a step back as a result.
White made the most of his 125 carries last season, rushing for 806 yards and averaging 6.4 yards per carry compared to Ball's average of 5.1. In fact, in Ball's four seasons as a Badger, he never topped 6.3 yards a carry for a season—White has done it twice in three years.
We could very well be talking about White as the most illustrious rusher in Wisconsin history if it hadn't been for the sprained knee that he suffered on Oct. 23, 2010 against the Iowa Hawkeyes. From there, it was Ball who emerged, scoring the game-winning touchdown and becoming the No. 1 back for the remainder of his career at Wisconsin.
White would still manage to cross the 1,000-yard threshold that year despite missing over a game and a half with his knee injury. And like Ball last season, White will benefit from having a strong supporting cast behind him at tailback, led by Gordon.
The success of Wisconsin's running game hinges largely on the offensive line to open up running lanes and the quarterback to take pressure off of the backfield by throwing the ball effectively. Before Joel Stave got his shot under center, struggles at quarterback as well as up front translated to a stagnant running attack.
In 2013, Stave will be back in the mix after suffering a broken collarbone on Oct. 27 against Michigan State, and he will have some competition heading into the spring with redshirt freshman Bart Houston and potentially Curt Phillips, who is awaiting word on a sixth year of eligibility.
Hopefully for White, that competition translates into efficient play at the quarterback position.
As for the offensive line, it will be losing all-conference performers Rick Wagner and Travis Frederick to the NFL, but there are still three returning starters and pretty solid depth across the line. As long as the new coaching staff sticks to what has worked in the past at Wisconsin, the Badgers should be fine on the offensive line, and that bodes well for White.
But here's the real kicker—with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator in Andy Ludwig as a result, it appears inevitable that the Badgers will use some option next season.
It's debatable whether or not Wisconsin has the personnel at quarterback to pull this off, but if the Badgers can somehow find a way to run the option with some success, that means even more attention will be diverted from White.
That would just be a bonus for the man whose turn has finally come to shine in Madison.
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