Running back Zach Brown didn’t get the number of carries he would have liked the past two seasons for the University of Wisconsin football team.
But for the first two weeks of spring practice, he is getting all he can handle.
Brown has become Mr. Reliable for the Badgers. When all else fails, he is there to bail them out, something not overlooked by his teammates.
“ ‘It seems like when it all falls down, Zach’s still standing,’ ” Brown said of the comments he hears from teammates. “I’m just glad I’m looked at like that. When it’s all said and done, I’m still standing.”
The same could be said for his career heading into his senior season.
Brown had a combined 121 carries the past two seasons for 584 yards and six touchdowns. Those totals barely exceeded his freshman year in 2007, when he started four games due to injuries to other backs and had 119 carries for 568 yards and five TDs.
With starter John Clay out all spring due to surgeries on both ankles, and sophomore backup Montee Ball slowed by a shoulder injury, Brown was the only healthy tailback at one time.
Sophomore fullback Bradie Ewing also has worked at tailback and redshirt freshman walk-on safety Kyle Zuleger was moved to running back to ease some of the burden on Brown.
“That’s the perfect word to describe it, busy,” Brown said prior to the team taking off this week for spring break. “I like it, though, when it comes down to it and the team needs me.”
In fall camp last year, Brown shocked everyone by beating out Clay and starting five of the first six games. After serving as the team’s third-down back in 2008, he went into camp with a chip on his shoulder after some people started referring to him as “third-down Brown.”
Clay ultimately became the starter and went on to be named the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Ball became the primary backup, which relegated Brown again to third-down status.
Looking back on it, Brown believes he might have put too much focus on camp and was feeling run-down when the season started.
“Fall camp was rough,” he said. “I went real hard in fall camp and when I came out of it, I don’t think I was as healthy as I feel right now.”
With only 15 practices in the spring, Brown will take all the work he can get.
When talking to running backs coach John Settle during individual meetings in the winter, Brown learned his No. 1 area in need of improvement was to make defenders miss.
“There were a lot of examples, where (Brown) is in on third down,” Settle said of last season. “That’s a critical time in the game, we’re trying to move the chains.
“If we’re going to trust him with the ball in his hands and we get everybody blocked and he’s one-on-one, he’s got to earn his scholarship. He’s got to do something to make somebody miss, whether it’s a handoff or a screen, he’s got to step up and be able to make some plays for us.”
Because Ball also catches the ball well, he’s a candidate to be the third-down back, although he has struggled in pass protection. Ball is expected to be at full strength when practice resumes next week and has to prove he can be a reliable blocker.
“We want him to be a guy we can play all three downs,” Settle said. “Right now, we don’t feel very confident (in that). He might pick up a protection, he might miss a protection. That’s a part of his game he’s got to be perfect if we’re going to trust him on third downs.”
It says a lot about the quality of the Badgers’ tailbacks that Brown could once again be No. 3. As a true freshman, he rushed for 250 yards against Minnesota, the fourth-highest total for a UW freshman, while filling in for injured starter P.J. Hill.
“I tell people, (Brown) is the ultimate professional,” Settle said. “When we met in the winter, we had a great talk about what’s expected of him if he’s going to be able to produce on game day.
“He’s a senior. He has come out every day and worked to improve those areas. I’m excited to see where it takes him and I know he’s excited about some of the progress he’s made.”
Brown is preparing like he will have a significant role in the fall, something he truly believes. He also hopes his senior year will be his best.
“I was always told, in a race, it’s not always about the strongest, or about the quickest, but who can last until the end,” he said.
“When it’s all said and done, I would definitely like to say I saved the best for last.”