November 18, 2009

Clay joins elite company in 1,000-yard club

MADISON - As John Clay walks through the hallways outside the Wisconsin locker room, the long row of former and sometimes current Badger All-Americans is evident.

He can see Badger greats of yesteryear like Joe Thomas, Chris Chambers, Lee Evans, Jim Leonhard, Jamar Fletcher and Troy Vincent because their pictures are fixtures on plaques stretching throughout the hallway.

But maybe more importantly to Clay is the board that hangs inside the running backs meeting room, one that doesn't get to be seen by many but continually makes its presence felt year in and year out.

"Coach John Settle gave me a list saying the 1,000-yard club and he was like, who's going to be next," Clay, who just toppled the plateau with his 151-yard effort against Michigan, said. "All the running backs that went over 1,000-yards in Wisconsin history are on that board."

You could sum up the rushing numbers over time at Wisconsin with one word: shattering.

In each of the past five seasons, Wisconsin has had a running back top the 1,000-yard mark and as if that wasn't impressive enough, take a little gander into the bigger picture.

Over the past 17 seasons, Badger running backs have toppled the milestone 15 times for an incredible 88 percent success clip.

Had Anthony Davis stayed healthy in 2003 and once again in 2004, the Badgers likely would have a streak of 17-straight seasons with a 1,000-,yard rusher. As it is, Dwayne Smith's 857 yards in 2003 and Davis' 973 in 2004 fell just short.

Still, when you think about it, the success of the tailbacks is phenomenal.

"It's definitely a big thing," UW junior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "You look around the country and that's kind of a rarity. It speaks volumes about what the guys are doing. I think the one thing that's cool about that is I think the other teams know that we're coming in to run the ball.

"To still be able to do it even though defenses are stacking the box, that's pretty neat."

In order for a running back to reach the 1,000-yard mark a number of things must happen. First and most importantly, the player needs to be able to stay healthy and fresh enough to slog through an entire Big Ten schedule.

Secondly, he needs a big and nasty offensive line capable of opening up holes. Thirdly, a consistent and effective passing game will help loosen the box and finally (among other things), the runner needs to believe in himself.

In Clay's case, all those things have come true.

Other than a scare early in the game against Iowa and a slight concussion at Indiana, the sophomore has been able to stay healthy, his offensive line has chipped in by helping the Badger backs average over 200 yards on the ground per game and Tolzien is having a great season in his first under center while Clay continually punishes defenders with his bruising running style.

In short, the sum of the parts has equated to 1,000-yard success yet again.

"I think it says a lot about him," Settle said. "We talked earlier about how he's matured throughout the year, having some injuries, playing through some things and understanding what it takes to play at this level.

"When it happened on Saturday, it was kind of overlooked because of all the emotions and beating Michigan and all that sort of things. Then it hit me. I went over to him sitting on the bench, tapped his head and said, 'Hey, congratulations."

In some ways, it makes perfect sense that Settle, who has coached a 1,000-yard rusher in every season he's been here, would let that slip past him at first.

In regards to Wisconsin football, it's almost guaranteed like the winter cold that the Badgers will have a stable of capable running backs and that the featured guy would reach quadruple digit rushing totals when it's all said and done.

It's simply this school's identity.

"You can say that just because that's what the tradition here is," Clay, who became the sixth sophomore in school history to reach the mark, said. "It's just running the ball and having a feature back grinding it out and punishing the defense, wearing them down. As the fourth quarter comes around, it makes everything much easier."

With three games remaining in the 2009 season, Clay has an opportunity to put up some huge numbers. Should he simply finish at his average in each of those tilts, he would complete the season just shy of 1,500 yards. Should he exceed his average, he could finish somewhere in 1,600-1,800-yard territory.

Needless to say, should Clay continue to perform at his current clip, he will be mentioned in every conversation regarding league player of the year. Heck, he might even win it.

And even thinking of that notion set his position coach back for a second when asked if he considered that realistic prior to the season.

"That's something we hadn't thought about," Settle said. "When we went into camp, we sat down and his thing was that he wanted to become a starter. We didn't put a number on it or try to limit what he wanted to accomplish. That would be another great accomplishment.

"He's a guy that's worked hard to get where he is and the more accolades that he can achieve or accomplish the better."

As this season begins to wind down, something new will shine bright in the room with the board. And it will be a picture of Clay alongside 12 other Badger running back greats.

"I feel very honored of just being with the names of Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill, Anthony Davis and all of them," Clay said. "Just all of them having 1,000 yards being the premier back that they were…I feel honored being in that."

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