On Thursday Wisconsin running back Montee Ball made the announcement that he would be coming back to Wisconsin for his senior season. A commendable decision by Ball considering the season he just had in Madison, finishing the year with 2,229 yards and 39 touchdowns, and going to New York as a Heisman finalist.
That being said, I don't think this is the right decision for Ball to make.
At the moment Ball is ranked as the sixth best 2012 NFL draft prospect amongst running backs by Rob Rang and 80th overall, and he'd likely be a middle round pick. Yes, it's possible that his draft stock will improve after staying at Wisconsin for another season, but that doesn't mean staying in school will help him have a longer, more successful pro career. In fact, it could seriously hinder his chances.
While there are some positions like quarterback where players are better served to stay in college and get another year of experience under their belts, running back is generally not one of those positions. This is due to the wear and tear that running backs endure during a season of football, on both the college and pro levels, and there aren't many programs that can wear down a back like Wisconsin.
A running back's legs only have so many miles on them. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule as we've seen in the past from guys like Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, but backs like those two don't come around very often. For a glimpse of what does happen more frequently, Ball need not look past his own program and some of the great rushers in the school's history.
For example, there's Heisman Trophy winner and the NCAA's all-time leading rusher Ron Dayne. In his four seasons at Wisconsin Dayne carried the ball 1,220 times for 7,125 yards. In his seven NFL seasons after being a first round draft pick of the New York Giants in 2000, Dayne carried the ball 983 times for 3,722 yards. Dayne never had the success in the NFL that he had while at Wisconsin, and while that's partially due to his build -- Ron was never the slimmest guy around -- you can easly look at those 1,220 carries in college as a factor as well. There weren't many miles left on those legs by the time he joined the Giants.
More recently there was Ball's former teammate John Clay. Clay only played three seasons with the Badgers and had half as many carries as Dayne in his career with 629 rushes, but his legs began breaking down before he even left for the NFL. Clay went undrafted last April before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent. So far in his rookie season with the Steelers, Clay has carried the ball only 10 times. Yes, the jury is still out on his NFL career, but given that he wasn't even drafted and only saw time in Pittsburgh's backfield due to injuries, it's reasonable to think that Clay won't end up in Canton one day.
The good news for Ball is that while he carried the ball 307 times in 2011 -- more than Clay ever had in any season, and more than Dayne had in two seasons at Wisconsin -- he only had 261 rushes in his first two seasons in Madison. So there's plenty of tread left on the tires, but given that Russell Wilson will not be back in 2012, there's enough reason to believe that Ball's workload will only increase next year. Which would not be good news for his longevity.
The other bonus for Ball is that he's a lot smaller than both Dayne and Clay ever were, slimming down to 210 pounds for his junior season for the sole purpose of saving some wear and tear.
Still, given the history of some of Wisconsin's greatest running backs, it's pretty clear that if Ball is hoping to have a long and successful pro career, he should make the move sooner rather than later. Playing football is not a profession with a long shelf-life, especially for running backs, and if Ball wants to have a long professional career, he'd be better off starting it in 2012 rather than 2013.
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