CHICAGO - After experiencing defeat in Pasadena for the second straight season, the taste in tailback Montee Ball’s mouth didn’t linger as long as some of his teammates.
Sure, he took a couple weeks after the season to let his historic 2011 season soak in but said those accomplishments became a memory the first day of winter conditioning. The reason? He had more work to do.
“In this profession, it’s what have you done for me lately?” Ball said. “I make sure I improve daily to make sure I keep the first string job.”
Montee Ball returns to Wisconsin for a senior season after finishing fourth in last year's Heisman voting.
Holding court Friday at the second day of Big Ten Media Days at the Hyatt Regency at McCormick Place, Ball might be the only person in America who believes he won’t be Wisconsin’s starting tailback. After all, there’s no chance Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema won’t try to get full value out of a player who was a consensus first-team All-American, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, the league's running back of the year and the fourth place finisher in the Heisman Trophy balloting last season.
“I think it would be a safe bet that Montee starts for us,” Bielema said. “He has developed an edge to him, something I couldn’t provide him on the field.”
In his press conference announcing his return to Wisconsin for his senior season, Ball talked passionately about becoming a leader and a role model to the entire team, not just the offense or the running backs. He wanted to be a team captain for a team striving for a third straight conference championship and hungry to end its season with a bowl victory.
Almost eight months after he made that pledge, Ball can look at himself in the mirror and say without hesitation that coming back to show NFL scouts he was worthy of more than a third-round pick has already helped him mature as a man.
“For my entire life, I was always the guy that wanted to lead by example and just grind,” Ball said. “I really took it to heart to be that vocal leader, getting in people’s ears if they weren’t doing something right. I didn’t want to yell at people, but I wanted everybody to be 100 percent locked in.”
That change in Ball’s mentality came from watching and learning from one of his good friends last season. A one-time walk-on from Richland Center (Wis.) High, Bradie Ewing turned himself from a little known commodity to team captain and was Ball’s lead blocker during his historic season and a fifth-round NFL draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons.
“He was in every meeting I was in and just watching how he carried himself off the field and on the field really bettered himself as a player,” Ball said. “He worked hard in everything he did. He paid attention to every detail, and it showed with his play and where he is at now. I always tried to think ‘What Would Bradie Do?’
“Bradie would be banged up on the first or second play of the game and he wouldn’t say anything. He would keep grinding and fighting for his teammates, and that’s what I am focused on.”
Although he was held out during all of UW’s spring full contact drills, Ball’s workout regimen showed no signs of slack. A summer after he shed roughly 20 pounds to get down to 205, Ball -– despite doing roughly 75 offseason interviews and photo shoots –- dedicated himself to put eight pounds of muscle back on his frame. Admitting to being too light at times last year, Ball aims to play this season at 215 pounds, bringing a new element to his game.
“I’ve made a huge jump in strength thanks to ‘Body by Herb,’” said Ball, referring to his workouts with strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. “He made sure to attack my body so I am stronger now than I have ever been before in my entire life. I am excited to show people that on the field. I’ll be able to be more physical than I was last year.”
Fair or unfair, the expectations surrounding Ball are huge from Wisconsin fans. Ball led the nation in rushing yards with 1,923 in 2011, the No. 3 mark in program history. He scored at least two touchdowns in each of UW's first 13 games, an NCAA record.
With one rushing touchdown in the Rose bowl, he finished with 39 touchdowns (33 rushing, six receiving). The total tied the NCAA mark set in 1988 by Barry Sanders with Oklahoma State.
On Thursday, the UW Athletic department unveiled its Heisman Trophy campaign for Ball with the catch line ‘This Fall Belongs to Ball.’ Needless to say, everyone is expecting big things.
“People say the only thing I can do is get worse (with my statistics), but the way I look at is I can become a better all-around player,” said Ball. “Being a leader for this team to actually come out with a win in a bowl game, a big bowl game, is what I am looking forward to.”
His image suffered a minor blemish in May when he was handcuffed and cited for trespassing during the annual Mifflin St. Block Party, a situation that caused him to apologize in front of his team but was something that his teammates immediately dismissed.
“That’s just the mindset we have here at Wisconsin,” said senior linebacker Mike Taylor. “It’s a brotherhood. When something negative happens, you feel bad about it and you think you let your team down. We know things happen, and Montee is a great guy. We knew it wasn’t an issue at all.”
A strong season in 2012 could push Ball to No. 2 on the Badgers' all-time rushing yards list.
Ball is approaching this season with no regrets and doesn’t believe he’ll have any regardless of the outcome. Purchasing an insurance plan between $2.5 and $3 million on himself after making the decision to return, money Ball would receive if he is unable to return to football after going through one year of therapy, Ball knows that he and his family will be set financially in the future.
But because of his unselfish act, his professional future is a year from now ... and his drive for a third conference championship has already started.
“Obviously I have a lot on the line if I do get injured, but I wouldn’t regret it because of the experience I have had just this year already,” said Ball. “With the friends I’ve made, I wouldn’t have these memories if I would have left last season. I just try to cherish and enjoy every single day ... and making sure I am taking every play and approaching it like it is my last.”
Looking for Records
Ball enters his senior season poised to finish at or near the top of the UW record book in several categories. He also is within striking distance of two NCAA marks. Here are three key numbers:
3,310: Ball is ninth on UW's all-time rushing list. He needs to rush for 1,367 yards to move past Anthony Davis (4,676 yards) and into second place behind Ron Dayne (7,125 yards).
61: Ball is second in program history in total touchdowns. He needs to score 11 touchdowns to break Dayne's UW mark of 71. He needs 18 touchdowns to break the NCAA mark set by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio).
55: Ball is second behind Dayne in rushing touchdowns. He needs to rush for 17 touchdowns to break Dayne's UW mark of 71 and 19 to break the NCAA mark set by Prentice.
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