Wisconsin's Montee Ball reinvents himself

Rose Bowl regrets? Wisconsin's Montee Ball has a few.

On the very first play from scrimmage against TCU, Ball raced 40 yards before being tracked down by safety Tejay Johnson. Most saw the run as an emphatic opening statement against the nation's No. 1 defense.

Ball saw it as a missed opportunity.

"Now," he said, "I'd probably take it to the house."

He had another opening on a run in the third quarter, but was tripped up when a TCU defender swiped at his legs. TCU went on to win 21-19.

"I felt like I left a lot of yards on the field," Ball told ESPN.com. "I had a bunch of shoestring tackles because I was top-heavy. I would just tumble right over."

Arguably no running back in America finished the season hotter than Ball. He recorded 777 rush yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games. He racked up 127 rush yards or more in each of the last five contests and reached the end zone multiple times in all but one game -- the Rose Bowl, where he scored once.

Despite all the success, Ball knew he needed to change. After topping out at 233 pounds, Ball transformed his body. He cut his weight considerably and went through preseason camp in the 207-208 range.

"I feel so much better," he said. "It's a complete difference. I just didn't feel comfortable being that big, a big back. I love to make faster cuts and all that stuff, and be a lot faster."

No one asked Ball to lose weight. Wisconsin is a haven for bigger backs, from former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne to former Big Ten Freshman of the Year P.J. Hill to 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player John Clay.

And after the way Ball finished the 2010 season, he didn't exactly need to be fixed.

"I saw him as a guy who was in shape," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "[Head strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert] had some discussions with him, and he just took the initiative upon himself. He knew what he could be.

"Sometimes the elite athletes can feel what their body needs before anybody else."

Ball's premonition seems to be paying off. He performed well throughout the offseason, showing better burst on his runs without losing his power.

The junior will showcase his new physique Thursday night when No. 11 Wisconsin opens the season against UNLV at Camp Randall Stadium.

Ball and sophomore James White are listed as co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart. Bielema plans to "pick one, flip a coin" as games evolve, but Ball looks like he could have a slight edge to be the featured back.

"I feel a lot stronger than last year," he said. "I still have the power, and now I have a lot more speed. Just put both of them together and make it happen."

Opposing defenders should get a sense of the new Ball starting Thursday. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland provides this preview.

"The angles you have to take on Montee have changed in the last year," Borland said. "He's a step faster for sure, hits the hole, and more so than just physically, it's been a mental boost for him, knowing that he's probably a bit more elusive, a little more explosive."

White's emergence last season also motivates Ball.

It was White, after all, who leapfrogged Ball in the preseason to become Wisconsin's No. 2 running back behind Clay. White brought a new element to Wisconsin's rushing attack with his speed and elusiveness and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after racking up 1,052 yards on the ground with 14 touchdowns. Only after Clay and White suffered injuries against Iowa did Ball get an opportunity, which he seized.

"My personal goal is to be the starter and to keep James off the field as much as possible," Ball said. "I want more carries than him, he wants more carries than me. That's the healthy competition we have."

Like Ball, White didn't accept the status quo during the offseason and worked on improving his lower-body strength. But White knows he's competing with a different type of player.

"He can do a little bit of everything," White said. "He still has the power, and now he's able to make those cuts in the open field to make people miss.

"There's a big difference between Montee Ball last year and Montee Ball this year."

If Ball and the Badgers exceed what they did last year, they could return to the Rose Bowl with a chance for redemption.