CHICAGO — University of Wisconsin junior running back John Clay is the returning Big Ten Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
But when the league’s media members selected the preseason Offensive Player of the Year, which was announced on Monday at the annual football kickoff event, they went with Ohio State quarterback Terrell Pryor for the second straight year. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones also repeated as the top defensive player.
Pryor’s selection is fine with UW coach Bret Bielema, who realizes Clay already has enough to worry about. He is coming off surgery to fix both ankles, which caused him to miss all of the spring practices, and is regarded as an outside Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I’m glad it was (Pryor),” Bielema said. “John’s got enough things on his plate, with Heisman talk.”
It was the same way with the media’s predictions on the conference race. Expectations about the Badgers might be sky high, probably as high as they’ve been in Bielema’s five seasons as coach.
Still, UW is only picked for third in the Big Ten race, behind Ohio State and Iowa.
That probably has more to say with the strength of the conference than any knock against the Badgers. Bielema is returning as a voter on the coaches’ poll, something he did earlier in his career, so he has paid more attention than usual to the early preseason polls. Like most people, he has noticed the Buckeyes picked in the top three in the nation in most of the projections.
“Ohio State’s always that top guy (in the Big Ten) and then everybody kind of bounces back (and forth) between us and Iowa,” Bielema said. “I wasn’t surprised by it. I figured we’d be in the top three.”
UW is not exactly flying under the radar this season. Bielema compared it to 2008, when the Badgers were picked to finish second in the conference.
“Those are two years you definitely had some preseason rankings,” he said.
Most fans remember what happened two years ago, when the Badgers finished 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten.
That continued a recent pattern of falling short in seasons when expectations are high. It’s also why Bielema has already fielded repeated questions about dealing with higher expectations.
One thing he noted, in his talk in front of reporters here in the main room, is the seniors on this team all went through the struggles two years ago.
“The majority of our kids that are going to be significant players ... all went through the scars of that season themselves, in addition to myself and several (members) of my coaching staff,” he said. “So, yeah, we’ll make note of any mistakes that were made that season.”
A healthy Clay would also help. After much concern about his weight in the spring, when he was unable to do much cardiovascular work due to the ankle surgeries, his current weight is listed at 255 pounds. That’s fine with Bielema, who got some advice from former UW coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez, who had to answer questions for four years about Ron Dayne’s weight.
“Coach kind of said to me one time, he gave up the fight against Ronnie with weight because he’s a big guy,” Bielema said. “John Clay is a big human being. He’s naturally gifted and can handle the workload, (so) I don’t see what the weight issue would be.”
The issues that will probably most determine how close the Badgers come to living up to expectations are health and senior leadership. It’s too early to measure the latter, but Bielema has a good feeling going into camp.
“I’ll be quite honest, my first year and last year, coming out of fall camp, is the best I’ve felt about both teams since I’ve been there,” Bielema said of the 2006 team that went 12-1 and the 2009 team that went 10-3. “Just the balance, the way they handle things, the leadership and some things like that are really very similar.
“I felt last year coming out of fall camp, we had a really good group of strong senior leadership. Not strong in numbers but really good in kids. Going into this fall camp — I’ll know a lot more after being with them a few weeks — I couldn’t be happier with the way our senior leaders are right now.”