UW still well-stocked at TB

P.J. Hill (UW Athletics)

Wisconsin will miss Brian Calhoun, but good options remain

Five years ago the University of Wisconsin football program watched tailback Michael Bennett leave for the NFL following a stellar junior season. The speedster effectively took with him all of UW's experience at the position. When then-sophomore Broderick Williams seriously injured his knee in spring practices, the Badgers were left with a trio of redshirt freshmen—Anthony Davis, Jerone Pettus and Tyron Griffin—dueling for the starting tailback job.

Davis, of course, emerged from that pack to become the Badgers' No. 2 all-time rusher. He ran for more than 3,000 yards between his freshman and sophomore seasons and finished with 4,676 after injury-riddled junior and senior campaigns.

Now, Wisconsin is thrust into a similar situation. Davis' four-year run as the Badgers' No. 1 back was followed by one unbelievable season from Brian Calhoun. After garnering 2,207 all-purpose yards and a school-record 24 touchdowns as a junior in 2005, Calhoun decided Monday that he would enter the NFL Draft.

Calhoun was perhaps the most talented offensive weapon the Badgers have ever had. He was certainly the most versatile. In fact, the NCAA has seen few players like him—a tailback who could wear down defenses between the tackles, juke defenders silly in the open field, turn on game-breaking speed and catch 53 passes in a season.

The Badgers likely will also need to replace Calhoun's talented understudy, Booker Stanley. Also a junior, Stanley played very well in 2005 but has been suspended since a Dec. 21 arrest for his second violent offense in less than a year. Monday he was formally charged with nine counts—including four counts of battery and one for second-degree sexual assault—as a result of his most recent arrest. Stanley is technically still on Wisconsin's roster, but his future with the program is in doubt.

Does this sound like a recipe for disaster—a formula for a record-setting offense to regress to dreary state of 2004? Not with the tailbacks Wisconsin has awaiting their turn.

Without Calhoun, and likely without Stanley, the Badgers will open the floodgates of competition, and redshirt freshmen will again figure prominently in the outcome. The assumption here is that P.J. Hill will emerge as a very capable starter in 2006—and will eventually become an All-Big Ten-caliber star. But he will not be alone.

With Calhoun in tow, the 2006 Badgers would have boasted a Heisman Trophy favorite. Certainly, UW will face a drop-off at the position without him, but it will not be particularly steep. Unless the position falls prey to injuries, the Badgers will again enjoy a high level of production from their running back corps.

If he had not broken his lower leg in fall training camp, Hill (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) would have been UW's No. 3 tailback this season, and he might have challenged Stanley for the No. 2 spot. Hill is a powerful between-the-tackles runner with exceptional vision and good speed. Assuming he stays healthy, he could be the Badgers' next workhorse.

More likely, however, the Badgers will spread the wealth, with returning backs Jamil Walker and Dywon Rowan, redshirt freshmen Jerry Butler and Dion Foster and true freshman Lance Smith all potentially in the mix. The Badgers have also considered converting cornerback Antonio Freeman to tailback.

Walker, who has reportedly been considered for a move to linebacker, has yet to realize his vast potential as a running back, but that potential remains. Walker sure looks the part. A muscular 6-2, 231, he ran a 10.4-second 100-meter dash in high school and has an elite combination of speed and power. If Walker becomes more consistent and a more physical runner, he will thrive.

Rowan, a 5-9, 240-pound walk-on, is a hard-nosed, gritty football player. Rowan has far-and-away the least amount of pizzazz of the remaining tailbacks, but he has been extremely consistent in practice. A physical runner, Rowan could serve a role as a short-yardage back in 2006 and should help the youngsters as a veteran presence.

Butler and Foster have immense potential. Butler was hampered by injuries this season, and durability may be a concern with his 5-9, 180-pound frame. But in fall camp Butler was the fastest and by far the quickest player on the Badgers' roster. Yes, faster than the likes of Calhoun, Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Levonne Rowan.

Butler has solid receiving skills and could be a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare on screen passes. Give him a little crease and there are few players in the country with any chance to keep up.

Foster (5-9, 208) is another intriguing, young prospect. He does not have breakaway speed, but he is a physical runner who reads blocks well. By all accounts, he improved by leaps and bounds from fall camp to the end of the season and still has quite a bit of growth potential.

If he indeed switches to offense, Freeman's elite sprinter's speed could give defenses another headache.

Smith now has a golden opportunity to come to UW in 2006 and receive meaningful, immediate playing time. He is the No. 44 running back in the country, according to Scout.com.

The x-factor in all of this is that the Badgers' future offensive scheme is an unknown commodity. The stamp that future head coach Bret Bielema, who formally takes over the program Jan. 30, and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst put on the offense will have a huge impact on how the aforementioned players are utilized.

One thing is certain, however. The Badgers have a plethora of options. Even with one of the nation's best offensive players heading to the NFL, UW is still poised to maintain its running-back tradition.

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