CHICAGO -- Corey Clement felt like he didn't belong at first. He remembers feeling out of place at his first workout at Wisconsin, where the line of productive running backs is long. When the offense features two star tailbacks already, the gap can feel impossible to bridge for an 18-year-old freshman.
Dripping with confidence, Clement quickly encountered a reality check in the form of James White and Melvin Gordon.
"I got chewed out for the first day," Clement said last Thursday at Big Ten media days. "I remember like it was yesterday. It was a workout. So, striders are just like a tempo run, but Melvin is so darn fast that he made it seem like it was a sprint. So I had to keep up with him and [2013 running backs coach Thomas Hammock] was watching from up top, and I didn't think he was watching at all, so I thought, 'This is supposed to be a jog, I don't know why they're burning themselves out right now.' That's the type of effort and mentality they possess. When it's supposed to be a jog, it's a sprint to them."
White is long gone, and now Gordon is gone too. Two years after his wake-up call, Clement is Wisconsin's budding star, the running back who saw the impressive lineage in front of him and used it to influence him to live up to -- and try to surpass -- the seemingly impossible standards that have been set.
Last year as a sophomore, Clement averaged 6.5 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns. He rushed for 949 yards -- more than four entire FBS teams -- and cracked the 100-yard mark four times. He did this as the backup to Gordon, the best running back in college football and the Heisman runner-up, who ran 343 times for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns in one of the best seasons in the history of the sport, statistically speaking.
Gordon nearly won the Heisman. White ran for 1,000 yards as a freshman and senior. Before them, Montee Ball twice came close to 2,000 yards and set the FBS career rushing touchdowns record. Before them, John Clay led the Big Ten in rushing. Before them, P.J. Hill ran for nearly 4,000 yards over three seasons. Before them, Brian Calhoun ran for 1,636 yards upon transferring from Colorado. And a few years before all of them, Ron Dayne set the FBS career rushing record.
In the last 10 years, Wisconsin has had 12 1,000-yard rushing seasons, with a handful of close calls, including Clement last year. The Badgers have one of the most well-established systems in college football, regardless of who's coaching. Whether it was Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen, they produce huge, powerful offensive linemen and running backs who can take advantage of the holes. Things most certainly will not change under new coach Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin quarterback who was the Badgers' offensive coordinator from 2006-11 under Bielema, and who most recently opened the door for James Conner to run wild at Pittsburgh.
Chryst, in fact, recruited Clement to Pittsburgh, and Clement initially verbally committed to the Panthers before switching to Wisconsin to attempt to become the Badgers' next running back star.
"It has been an important position for a long time," Chryst said. "He's had mentors at the position. I think Melvin and the way that he approached it; before that, James White. And so I think Corey has got a clear expectation of what it is to be the running back at Wisconsin. I think I also have had some great conversation with Corey and that he knows who he is and he knows that he doesn't have to be Melvin, doesn't have to be James. And so I like where he's at right now. I think he's excited for this next step in his progression as a player."
Clement is, however, put in a tough position. In a way, Wisconsin falls into the trap that, say, Texas Tech quarterbacks have faced: How much credit goes to the individual, and how much goes to the system? Gordon may have transcended the system more than any other back in an individual season, and thus Clement now must face an endless barrage of questions about his former teammate. When so many players have been successful before you, it can be hard to get individual recognition, especially because it's almost impossible to repeat what Gordon did.
"It sucks; I'm tired of it," said Clement with a laugh when asked how he feels about all the Gordon comparisons. "It's great to be compared to him in the sense of, 'Wow, you and Melvin were on the same team?' But not statistical-wise. Look at my carries, I had 140-something compared to 300-something carries by Melvin. I couldn't really show as much as he did because he got more opportunities. I think at the end of the day, when my season is over, then you guys just can do all the comparisons you guys want.
"I can only be Corey Clement."
By almost any indication, that's great news for Wisconsin. Clement's decision to become a Badger is about to pay off, despite the loss of three starters on the offensive line. As a four-star recruit out of Glassboro, N.J., Clement decided he want to get out of his comfort zone and move away from home for college -- he joked that he needed to be a two-day drive away -- but also challenge himself. Wisconsin offered the best of all worlds: a time zone away, with a perfect system for running backs but also plenty of competition for an incoming recruit.
Clement remembered watching Wisconsin beat Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten title game in 2012. In that game, both Gordon and Ball ran for over 200 yards, and White added 109 yards and four rushing touchdowns. To Clement, his decision seemed obvious.
"All right, you've got an iPhone and you've got a flip phone," Clement said. "And you see all these great features the iPhone can do, and then you look at the flip phone -- which phone are you going to go with? I'm going with the iPhone. That's what I compared Wisconsin to Nebraska. Nebraska is a flip phone. And Wisconsin is an iPhone. I'm like, 'Mom I want to go to the Apple Store. I don't want to go to the Sprint Store right now.' So I mean, who wouldn't want to go with what's best at the moment? And I'm like this is a great opportunity to actually be an understudy for the next two years and just practice on what I need to do."
This was all said in good humor with plenty of laughter, and while Nebraska may see it as bulletin-board material, what 18-year-old running back recruit wouldn't think along similar lines upon seeing that?
Clement doesn't lack confidence, and nor should he. He has already ranked in the top 10 in the Big Ten in rushing as a backup to a Heisman finalist. He's already showed off terrific vision, elusiveness and explosiveness, with the lateral agility to do big things both this season in the Big Ten and in the future at the NFL level. When asked about his goals for this season, he didn't shy away from a big number: 2,000 yards, in leading Wisconsin to the College Football Playoff.
The latter may be a long shot, particularly in the same conference as Ohio State, but 2,000 never seems impossible for a Wisconsin running back as talented as Clement, especially when there is no proven No. 2 backup behind him at the moment. The offense will run through him, his patience paying off.
"Not to sound cocky, but I could have went to a different school and tried to start right away, but I just think something in my mind told me that when I watched the Nebraska game and they put up 70-plus points on Nebraska, who wouldn't want to be a part of that?" Clement said. "I saw the star power that was within that group -- you had Montee, Melvin and James. Those are all great high-caliber NFL candidates for when they were in college, so I was just thinking that if I work with the best in the country, then when it comes my turn I should be ready, and regardless of if I have a number two back or not, I should be ready for that moment because I battled with the best of them."
Yes, the system helps. It's a lot easier to average six or seven yards per carry and set 2,000 yards as a legitimate goal when the team you play for is best known as a factory for offensive lineman. But the system, in turn, attracts high-quality running back talent, with players coming in and measuring themselves against and competing with those who have set that high standard. Just as its system has helped Baylor attract more talented receivers, a player like Clement can be drawn to Wisconsin because of the combination of an advantageous system and the challenge one faces in separating himself from the competition.
Clement isn't taking the responsibility lightly. He said he has spent the offseason putting himself through grueling, unorthodox workouts, carrying logs and working on his stride length, trying to find some of the speed that made Gordon so successful. But while he's influenced by what made players like Gordon so productive, it all stops at the word "influence." Clement may be next in a long line, but he's poised to do what Dayne, Ball and Gordon did and make a name for himself on his own, separate from the system.
High standards have been set for Wisconsin running backs, fostering a game of one-upmanship if one wants to etch his name into crowded records books. Two years after his wake-up call, Clement embraces the opportunity.
"I will say I have high confidence within myself," Clement said. "If you don't, then I think I'd be in the wrong system to not have it. My coaches are allowing for me to excel at and perfect my craft. There's a lot of things I can do on a daily basis -- whenever I'm not working out I'm in the film room -- and I just try to be the best that I can be. I'm not going to be Melvin Gordon. I'm going to be Corey Clement."
For Wisconsin, that's not a bad thing. In fact, it just means that the running back tradition at Wisconsin will live on.