Russell Wilson might get all the hype, but the real key to the Wisconsin Badgers offense in 2011 sits with the guys who will line up most frequently behind the first-year quarterback.
Sophomore James White and junior Montee Ball accounted for 2,048 yards on the ground and 32 scores via the run last season when teamed up with the solid but not spectacular Scott Tolzien at quarterback.
Excluding former teammate John Clay, no two running backs in the same uniform ran for more yards or more scores than White and Ball in 2010.
This year, these two members of the inaugural Big Ten “Preseason Players to Watch List” will be taking handoffs from NC State transfer Wilson, who finished last season 12th in the nation in passing yards with 3,563 and 14th in passing touchdowns with 28.
Whereas Tolzien was your prototypical game manager, Wilson is viewed by and large as a playmaker capable of burning defensive backs for six each and every time he drops back to pass.
As a result, opposing coaching staffs are going to be forced to employ a heck of a lot more than the conventional “eight men in the box” defense that has become commonplace against the Badgers in recent years.
Still, while Wilson continues to get acclimated with the Wisconsin playbook, look for head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to rely on White and Ball to carry the load early on.
Wisconsin opens its season next Thursday at Camp Randall when it plays host to perennial Mountain West Conference cellar-dweller UNLV.
A season ago, the Rebels ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams in rush defense by allowing opponents to run for almost 223 yards per game.
Neither history nor Wisconsin’s traditional run-first, pass-later playbook would seem to bode well for the Badgers’ desert visitors as they approach next week’s matchup against the defending Big Ten champs.
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