RBs White, Gordon carry load for No. 23 Wisconsin

Wisconsin appears well-stocked to keep churning out rushing yards despite a major overhaul.

Gary Andersen is the new coach, replacing Bret Bielema. Record-setting tailback Montee Ball is now taking handoffs in the Denver Broncos’ training camp.

It will be up to senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon to carry on in the backfield in Madison, where the No. 23 Badgers hope to extend their streak of three straight Rose Bowl appearances. The season begins Aug. 31 at home against Massachusetts.

White and Gordon each led the Badgers in rushing at least one game last season. They were overshadowed by Ball, a second-round pick by the Broncos, who set an NCAA record with 83 career touchdowns.

“This is definitely the opportunity I’ve been waiting for,” White said Thursday. “It’s my senior season and I’m just going to do whatever I can to help my team win.”

White was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010 when he rushed for 1,052 yards, but his opportunities diminished somewhat behind Ball. White has rushed for 2,571 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career.

Last season, White ran for 806 yards and 12 touchdowns, including four games of more than 100 yards, as the Badgers finished 8-5 in the regular season and then lost to Stanford 20-14 in the Rose Bowl.

Gordon had just 62 carries last season, but averaged a whopping 10 yards per carry. He flashed his potential early, rushing for 112 yards on eight carries in a 37-26 nonconference victory over UTEP.

Gordon really opened eyes in the 70-31 rout of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game when he rushed for 216 yards on just nine carries.

Vonte Jackson, projected as third tailback, suffered a knee injury and is out for the season. Jeff Lewis was tried at safety in training camp, but recently returned to the backfield.

As such, freshman Corey Clement, who rushed for 2,323 yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior, appears to have the inside track for the third tailback position.

Perhaps more important than the yards gained by Ball was how he gained them. Ball carried 356 times, compared with White’s second-best 125, and often was tasked with grinding out tough yardage between the tackles.

“You have to get those tough yards before you get those long runs. You just have to wear the defense down,” White said. “You’re not always going to break a long one each and every play. You’ve got to go out there and get what you can and try to help move the chains.”

Another wrinkle installed by Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is to split the running backs out as receivers.

“Anyway they can draw up something to get our athletes the ball and get out there and make plays is good,” Gordon said.

Although the Badgers finished last season with a strong running game, they struggled at times, especially early in the year. They managed just 35 yards rushing in a 10-7 loss to Oregon State in the second week and were held to 19 on the ground in a 16-13 loss to Michigan State.

“When you can’t run the football, it’s hard to pass,” White said. “You’ve got to be able to run the football because you can bring those safeties down in the box. If you’re running the ball well, you can get those play-action passes and throw those passes over the top.”

“We started off slow last year,” White said. “Everybody has to be on the same page. We definitely want to start off fast this year. We’re working on that and trying to gel as a unit and get ready for that first game.”

Andersen has yet to name a starting quarterback, although it appears that Joel Stave and Curt Phillips have edged ahead of junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy.

Stave, a redshirt sophomore who has the stronger arm, took over as the starter last season when transfer Danny O’Brien flopped. Phillips, a sixth-year senior, took over when Stave suffered a broken collarbone.

“We won with both last year,” Gordon said. “I like Joel and I like Curt. Whoever gets the job, we have to go out there and execute no matter who’s under center.”