Wisconsin Football: A history of strong running backs

The phrase “Tailback U” has traditionally been used to refer to Southern California’s backfield, where Heisman Trophy-winning running backs Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen, and Reggie Bush (*) have made their homes.

Recently, however, that label is more befitting of Wisconsin football. Consider that Wisconsin has the longest streak in the FBS of 1,000-yard rushers, producing at least one every year since 2005.

Oregon and Stanford, two of the schools that defeated the Badgers in UW’s recent Rose Bowl run, are the next closest. They have each had a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2007. Southern Cal, the traditional Tailback U, has had poor success on the ground recently, with only three such seasons since 2005.

Melvin Gordon, James White (2), Montee Ball (2), John Clay (2), P.J. Hill (3), and Brian Calhoun have each met the threshold since 2005. That’s 11 1,000-yard runners in nine seasons for the Badgers.

The success doesn’t stop there. After anomalies in 2003 and 2004, another streak extends back to 1993 with Anthony Davis (2), Michael Bennett, Ron Dayne (4), Carl McCullough, Terrell Fletcher, and Brent Moss all meeting the mark. That’s 10 1,000-yard backs in ten seasons.

This was the pinnacle of Ron Dayne's career. He is the most notable example of UW running backs struggling in the NFL. Photo credit: footballfoundation.org.

This was the pinnacle of Ron Dayne’s career. He is the most notable example of UW running backs struggling in the NFL. Photo credit: footballfoundation.org.

No matter how talented a running back is, he needs a strong offensive line opening up lanes for him. Coinciding with the rise of Wisconsin’s tailbacks, 22 Wisconsin offensive linemen have been selected in the NFL Draft since 1993. Six of those 22 were chosen in the first round.

While Wisconsin linemen like Mark Tauscher and Joe Thomas have enjoyed great success in the NFL, the runners they blocked for have often struggled. Moss, McCullough, Davis, Calhoun, Hill, and Clay played little or no time in the NFL. Fletcher, a second round pick in 1995, played eight unproductive years as a backup with the Chargers.

Bennett was a Pro Bowler in 2002 with the Vikings, but subsequently struggled with injuries and fumbling problems as he bounced around the league. Dayne, the 1999 Heisman winner, was overweight during his tenure with the New York Giants and could never establish himself as a reliable starting running back.

Ball has seen his role expand as the 2013 season went on. Backing up Knowshon Moreno on the AFC champion Denver Broncos, Ball rushed for 559 yards in the regular season and has continued to have significant playing time in the playoffs. With Moreno’s contract expiring after the Super Bowl, Ball could find himself starting next year in Denver.

White will look to join his former teammate in the NFL. CBS Sports projects him as a fifth round pick at the upcoming draft in April. A versatile player, White has been overlooked because of his backup role behind Gordon, Ball, and Clay. He has also been downgraded due to his height of 5’9”. Stay tuned to Isportsweb for a full draft profile of White and other outgoing Badgers players in the coming weeks.