Spring Recap: Running Backs

RB P.J. Hill

With four healthy running backs all bringing a dfferent talent to the table, Wisconsin's backfield was the most impressive position during the 2008 spring camp.

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MADISON – While some position coaches are going to toss and turn over injuries, inexperience or lack of growth at their position, John Settle is going to get a great night's sleep from now until the beginning of August.

With four running backs in the stable each bringing a unique talent to the table, the depth in the Wisconsin backfield rivals any other unit in the nation.

"It's like going to the candy store," Settle said. "You have all your favorites and instead of having to pick one type of candy, you get to have all of them."

Healthy for the first time in his career to be able to participate in spring camp, junior P.J. Hill, listed as co-number one on the pre-spring depth chart, showed that the running back job is his until further notice.

Not only was Hill in the best shape of his life, he is leading by example. He is stretching more and lifting in the weight room, eating right and doing all the little things right to get prepared for the arduous season ahead.

Through spring practices, he has used reps to run more east and west than north and south but has shown a burst off the tackle, ripping off plenty of seven-to-10 yard runs to the outside. Although UW was mostly in half pads throughout camp, Hill never shied away from a hit and with his new, healthier frame, he's been able to handle the punishment through the month of practice.

If Hill is the thunder of the offense, his co-number one running back, Zach Brown, is the lightning. After showing off his speed in runs against Ohio State and Minnesota last season, Brown showed onlookers that he hasn't lost that pop in his step, taking plenty of handoffs to the sidelines, through the middle and off the edges for hefty gains.

But Brown added some moves to his repertoire in the offseason, as safety Jay Valai found in the second-to-last week of practice. Taking the handoff and sprinted around the end untouched, Brown out ran everybody except Valai, who eventually caught up to Brown around the 10-yard line. That didn't stop the sophomore RB from using Valai's speed against him, executing a tremendous cut back that made Valai grab nothing but air and allowed Brown to score the touchdown.

Unfortunately for Brown, the only bad practice he had was during the spring game when he was slowed by an injury. On a 13-yard run he had late in the game's first half, Brown was knocked on the shin and had to be taken for x-rays, which thankfully turned out negative.

With a healthy Brown in the backfield, Wisconsin has got a solid combination of speed and strength in its two backers.

But if Wisconsin wanted to utilize speed and strength in a single player, John Clay has proven to coaches that he could be the answer in the near future.

Taking his redshirt season to learn the playbook, gain 10 pounds of muscle and perfect his running style, Clay showed that he can be a typical power runner through the middle or take a run off tackle. Clay also showed that he has some moves, too, and no move has been more beneficial to Clay than the cutback, which has fooled such players as Brinkley, Flasch, Maragos and Moody in the secondary throughout practice.

Clay had his long-awaited debut and didn't disappoint, finishing with a combined 94 yards on 21 carries while playing for both offenses in the spring game squads, including carried the ball 11 times for 67 yards on one of the White's opening possession of the third quarter.

"(Coach B) said he would make sure I was tired," Clay said Saturday. "I had my mindset that I was going to keep running the football. I have a main focus that I have an assignment to do."

The whole thing holding Clay back is his pass catching, as the freshman has dropped numerous passes in the flat and on the screen. It's not a major issue at this point, as all Clay needs is more repetitions.

Last but certainly not least, junior Lance Smith had himself a solid spring camp and a solid spring game, running 17 times for 98 yards for both the cardinal and white teams. But with youth at wide receiver and Smith having arguably the best hands on the team, Wisconsin split Smith out in multiple formations as a wide receiver, a new position where Smith showed throughout spring that he can be just as big of threat as a receiver as he has been a running back.

"Lance is a guy that probably has the best hands on the team," Bielema said. "If we throw 100 passes, my guess is he'd have the highest percentage of catching them. He needs a package at wide receiver or running back to give them a chance to win. At Wisconsin, we have a certain amount of guys that, when they are on the field, that give us a chance to change a game on any play and he's one of them."

Player of Camp: John Clay

Projected Starter: P.J. Hill but Brown will see plenty of time at running back and Smith should see some time either in the backfield or as a receiver.

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