This must be what it’s like to have a garage filled with high-performance automobiles.
If the Lamborghini breaks down, roll out the Porsche.
The Jaguar is low on gas? Take the Ferrari.
The University of Wisconsin football team will likely be without its top-end model — star running back Montee Ball — for most of the first two weeks of preseason camp as he recovers from a concussion. Ball is doing conditioning this week and is expected to be cleared for no-contact drills next week.
So, the Badgers simply turn to junior James White, a 1,000-yard rusher from two years ago, who is on the watch list, along with Ball, for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada can remember only one other time in his career when he had two running backs of that caliber, and that was in 2002 when he held the same job at Northern Illinois.
“I had Thomas Hammock as the starter and Michael Turner as the backup,” Canada said on Tuesday. “We didn’t have quite the depth.”
Hammock is now the running backs coach for the Badgers, while Turner went on to be a Pro Bowl running back for the Atlanta Falcons.
Even then, Canada didn’t have another talent at the position such as redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon.
As UW coach Bret Bielema said recently, if you polled UW’s running backs, “They would all say Melvin is the most talented.”
That kind of praise for Gordon made Hammock uneasy in the spring, as everybody rushed
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to anoint him as a future star. But Hammock was encouraged when Gordon didn’t pay any attention to it.
“The thing about Melvin I really enjoy, I don’t think he buys into that stuff,” Hammock said. “Football is really, really important to him. Every day he comes in, ready to work and ready to get better. If he makes a mistake, it really bothers him for a while.”
Gordon played in four games as a true freshman, rushing for 98 yards on 20 carries, before being redshirted with a groin injury. He practiced all spring despite still being bothered by the groin, then rushed for 159 yards on 30 carries in the spring game.
“He was battling through some things in the spring,” Hammock said. “The great thing about it, that’s when you start to see guys mature. You aren’t always going to be 100 percent as a running back. You have to fight through some things.
“For him to go through those 15 practices the way he did, and fought through and competed, then ended it with the spring game, it gave him confidence that over the course of a 12- or 13-game season, he can do what it takes, day in and day out ... to be successful on Saturdays.”
Gordon and sophomore Jeff Lewis were the only two scholarship running backs who took part in the spring game — and Lewis was nursing a hamstring injury. Ball was held out as a precaution.
That proves there’s no such thing as too many talented running backs.
The speedy Lewis has been slowed by a variety of injuries his first two seasons and must prove he can stay healthy.
Freshman Vonte Jackson, who enrolled early in January, is coming off a torn ACL suffered in the first half of the first game of his senior year at Kenosha Bradford.
“He’s 100 percent,” Hammock said. “I think it was a great advantage for him being here in January, to learn the playbook. Now he can go out there and play fast and let it loose.”
White is the most proven of the backups, having rushed for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2010. He also might have the most to prove, having dropped to 713 yards and six scores last season.
The dropoff was a result of Ball’s emergence and a shift in UW’s offense.
“The thing people need to realize, two years ago we ran a lot of outside zone plays,” Hammock said. “Last year, we were more of an inside zone power team.
“Obviously, James can be really special when he gets out in space. So, we’ve got to find ways to get him out in space, so he can do what he does best.”
The position seems to be in capable hands — and legs — until Ball returns.
“I definitely think guys have more of a bounce in their step, knowing they’re going to get more reps in practice,” Hammock said. “They’re anxious to show the coaches what they can do.”