John Clay, known as “Gumby” to his teammates, went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 as one of the most heavily recruited running backs in the country.
He became just the third Badger ever to be named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2009.
He decided to forgo his senior year to enter the 2011 NFL draft after missing three games in his junior year with a MCL sprain. Despite the lost games, Clay was named one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award.
Clay ran for over 3,400 yards and scored 41 times in his three seasons. In college, he measured at 6’1″, 255 lbs. and drew comparisons to ex-Badger Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner who still holds the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a career.
Though Clay carried the ball 342 times in his freshman and junior years combined, he did lug the ball 277 times as a sophomore. That is more attempts than Dayne had in two years with Wisconsin, where he ended up toting the ball an amazing 1,115 times in four years.
Though Dayne was drafted by the New York Giants in the first round of the 2000 draft, some critics fear all the tread on his tires were worn off at Wisconsin. In his four seasons as a Jint, Dayne never started more than seven games, and his rookie season on 770 yards on 228 carries was his best season with them.
Dayne joined the Denver Broncos in 2005 but was rarely used. He joined the Houston Texans the next two years, where he had arguably some of the finest years of his career. After gaining a career-best 773 yards in 2007, he was out of the league.
Clay was built a lot like Dayne (5’10”, 250) in college, and both players are big running backs known for being nimble on their feet. While Dayne was not exactly a speed merchant, Clay ran a disappointing 4.84 40-yard dash at the combine despite recently shedding 25 pounds.
With his slow time, Clay’s draft prospects have dropped immensely. Before he hurt his MCL at Wisconsin, there were rumblings that Clay might get tabbed in the second round. Those murmurs, as well as the fact he was being asked to carry the ball too many times in the Badgers’ run-oriented attack, might have helped propel him to turn pro.
There is a good chance no one drafts Clay this year. There are big backs like Mikel Leshoure, Daniel Thomas, Jamie Harper and Stevan Ridley gaining more interest from NFL teams right now.
Then there is the history of Badgers running backs in the NFL.
Wisconsin has sent 37 running backs to the NFL. Just four have gone to the Pro Bowl, and just one ran for over 1,000 yards in a single season. Three were fullbacks, led by Alan “The Horse” Ameche. Ameche was the 1955 Heisman winner and 1958 NFL Rookie of the Year.
Ameche ran for 961 yards as a rookie, which would stay a record for rookie runners until Cadillac Williams broke it in 2005. Ameche is also known as the man who scored the winning touchdown in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Pat Harder and Ed Jankowski were the other Badger fullbacks to go to the Pro Bowl, but Michael Bennett is the only halfback. Bennett gained 1,296 yards in 2002, the only full season of his injury-filled career.
Hall of Famers and Green Bay Packers legends Curly Lambeau and Arnie Herber saw time at running back in the NFL, but Herber is mostly known for his work at quarterback, and Lambeau is best known as the legendary coach the Packers named their home field after.
Clay will be battling history, concerns about his speed and maybe even his 619 rushing attempts over three college seasons as he looks for a job with an NFL team. Despite being strictly a power back only suited for running between the tackles, he does have certain skills that translate at the next level.
He won’t change directions quickly or offer a lot on special teams or in the passing game, and he has had ankle issues. Clay’s 29″ vertical was the worst amongst running backs at the combine, and scouts feel he is stiff in the hips and has questionable vision.
Scouts want him back up to his collegiate weight despite his running a 4.7 at Wisconsin’s pro day. He has a tremendous stiff arm and really packs a wallop upon impact. He is also a patient runner, using his nimble feet to wait for the hole to open before he runs through it.
Clay has said his reason for early entry is because he knows running backs can have short careers. He does not want to be a fullback, preferring to be an every-down type. If he improves his pass blocking and catching, as well as puts to rest concerns over his ankles and ball security abilities, Clay could add an intriguing dimension to a depth chart.
You can’t teach size, something Clay has plenty of in supply. If he packs on more weight again, some think he could be a Pete Johnson type. Johnson was a 1,000-yard back for the Cincinnati Bengals and scored 12 or more touchdowns in three of his seven seasons. He stood 6’0″ and weighed 252 pounds, so the comparison could be fair.
If Clay has half the career Johnson did, he will be a steal for anyone who drafts him or signs him as a free agent. It would be a career that most former Badgers running backs would be envious of.