MADISON, Wis. -- Atop the Camp Randall Stadium steps, where the sun bakes pavement and the weight of a 50-pound vest burns his legs, Corey Clement stares down on the field and envisions everything again being right in his world.
He visualizes 80,000 fans screaming uncontrollably after he has polished off a long touchdown run, but beyond that, he visualizes redemption. With the season set to begin, he is once again healthy in body and spirit, fully recovered from a sports hernia injury that derailed his junior season and an embarrassing off-field fight that sullied his reputation. This, Clement tells himself, is the way it's supposed to be -- the way it can be once more.
He is here, grinding through more "stadium" runs preparing for Wisconsin's Saturday opener against No. 5 LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). On one side will be Leonard Fournette, a Heisman favorite and the presumptive No. 1 running back in the upcoming NFL draft. On the other side will be Clement, who says he feels like a forgotten man. His mission is to use this year with the Badgers as an opportunity to reclaim what was lost. And he understands he has plenty to prove both on and off the field.
Clement, who holds the career South New Jersey high school rushing record, has never hid from his desire to be considered among the elite class of college running backs. But when Clement logged onto Twitter this offseason and saw several top-five lists of the best college tailbacks, he noticed his name was nowhere to be found. Leonard Fournette. Dalvin Cook. Christian McCaffrey. Royce Freeman. Samaje Perine.
"I try to stay off Twitter as much as possible, but it's annoying," he said. "You scroll down and you see, 'Who's going to be on the podium for this running back class?' I'm just sitting there like, 'OK.' I really laugh sometimes."
Of course, there are good reasons those players have pried much of the spotlight from Clement. McCaffrey was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year and finished second in the nation with 2,019 rushing yards. Fournette finished third (1,953 yards), Freeman fourth (1,836), Cook sixth (1,691) and Perine 21st (1,349) one year after setting the single-game FBS rushing record. Clement, meanwhile, could do nothing as he watched from the sideline, missing nine games and finishing with 221 yards rushing.
In July, Clement was frustrated enough about being overlooked that he posted this tweet:
The number can't play for you. So all that don't matter . FOCUS— Corey Clement (@CoreyClement_6) July 13, 2016
"I just think some NFL scouts or people who follow college football in general, they don't even mention me up with Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, all these other top premier backs," Clement said. "It's kind of a smack in the face to not even be mentioned with these guys. I've been here before some of these guys who came in, like Fournette. But he's gained his respect.
"This is my season to make up and say, 'I haven't left yet. You made a big mistake trying to drop my name out of the running.' It's another motivation just to kick into another gear and just go off the first game. I've got to think about the first game -- the first game only. Me against Fournette. So, bring on the show."
Clement has tracked his offseason slights and used them as a fuel reserve. He singled out a Feb. 16 tweet from Fournette, who uploaded video of himself squatting 405 pounds during offseason workouts while describing it as "easy." Several media outlets wrote stories off the video, which has been viewed nearly 150,000 times on Fournette's Twitter and Instagram accounts alone.
"There's so much that they hype up on social media, whether it's, 'Oh, look at Fournette do this squat, 405 pounds 20 times,'" Clement said. "I can do it, but I'm not going to display it. It's fine. The SEC has their talent, and I respect their style of play. ... It doesn't mean we have to let the world see that before the season starts."
Clement's training sessions this summer have largely occurred in the background. And while he bemoans the national significance of one 12-second video, Clement acknowledges it also provides him with visual proof of what he's chasing in his final college season.
Sometimes, in the pre-dawn hours when Clement feels tired, when he wants to hit the snooze alarm and sleep just a little longer to avoid a workout, he'll jolt himself awake with one question: What's Fournette doing?
"Shoot, he's probably doing something right now," Clement said. "Let me get my behind out of bed and just keep working."
A season to forget
A year ago, Clement found himself occupying a space that changed him as a person and a football player. Melvin Gordon had exited one season early for the NFL, leaving Clement at the front of the line as Wisconsin's next potentially great tailback. But he became consumed with putting up monster statistics, saying he wanted to rush for "no less than 2,000 yards," so he could win a Heisman Trophy and follow Gordon to the pros. His family prepared accordingly.
"It was more or less like, 'OK, he's about to roll out and do what he needs to do and he's leaving,'" said Corey's mother, Latanya. "He wanted to make his mark and get out at a young age."
Clement began listening to people tell him how good he could be. He focused on the result rather than the process required to achieve his goal. Ultimately, he lost track of what really mattered. After he underwent sports hernia surgery following the 2015 season opener against Alabama, he still returned to play in three more games at less than full speed. He says he now sees how his behavior impacted so many others.
"I was licking my chops a little bit at the next level," Clement said. "Because you feel it. It's just so close. It's like, 'Man, all this work I put in the past 15 years playing this game, it's finally almost here.' But I forgot -- not forgot that I'm on this team -- but I let that fall by the wayside a little bit. And then I slowly got a wakeup call.
"It was a wakeup call to let you know that you have a team that cares about you and that you should be here, and it's very selfish of you to think about the next level when you've got 80,000 here every Saturday cheering this team on. You should be a part of it. This season is still here. The NFL can still wait."
When Clement suffered his sports hernia injury, it forced him to adjust his football goals. When he was cited for fighting, it forced him to adjust his life.
On Saturday, Nov. 7, instead of returning from Wisconsin's game at Maryland, Clement was home nursing lingering soreness from his sports hernia surgery. He stepped onto an elevator at his apartment complex at 2 a.m. Sunday morning with a large group of people. It turned into an incident that spilled over into verbal threats and punches.
Police concluded Clement used "derogatory and sexually explicit language directed toward a female" and initiated the fight by punching a man in the face. Clement was then knocked to the ground and kicked before the melee dissipated. He was glassy eyed and nearly hyperventilating when police arrived, though they concluded he was not intoxicated.
He said his first thought when it was over was, "What the f--- am I doing?"
"I'm an aggressive person playing this football game," Clement said. "I try to take all my anger out, whatever it is that may be within me that's bottled up. And I normally release it during football. But I didn't have any football to be playing at the time. Even though I had played against Rutgers a week before the fight happened, it still wasn't enough. I don't know. My aggression just built up. It bit me in the butt."
If Clement had come clean about his role in the fight over the coming days, he could've avoided adding another uncomfortable chapter to a forgettable season. Yet he dug a deeper hole when he told Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and running backs coach John Settle that he was coming to the aid of a security guard, whom he claimed was being assaulted. When the truth was revealed, Chryst suspended Clement for Wisconsin's Nov. 28 game against Minnesota, and he didn't travel with the team.
Clement's mother said she did not find out what happened directly from him, instead hearing the account from her oldest son. She said it is the only occasion during his college career in which she was truly disappointed in him.
"There's going to be things you're going to grow through," she said. "First and foremost, you've got to be honest, and you have to say what happened. There are things you have to do to get that respect from your teammates, your coaches, because they all look up to you. You can't say one thing and do another. You have to be what you say you are."
Clement eventually was cited for two counts of disorderly conduct and ordered to pay $878 in fines. He said that night last November was a one-time mistake, and he wants to show everyone that is not who he really is.
"I lied to Coach and had to tell him the truth," Clement said. "To be honest, everybody makes mistakes. He understands everybody is human. What he really said straight up is, 'Don't lie to the guy who's trying to help you.' That's the message I received. Really take it into account that you have to be accountable for your own actions, but at the same time, you have people trying to help you.
"Do I regret it? Yeah. It's something I look back on and say that was a bad decision, bad choices. I've got to live and learn from it."
When Clement paid his citation fees, the court case finally closed. But a great deal of work remained for him to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of frustrated coaches and teammates -- to demonstrate humility and place a genuine priority on teamwork.
Settle said the incident embarrassed Clement and forced him to grow up. Settle encouraged Clement to surround himself with teammates, because they shared the same schedule and would be less likely to stray if they were together. Meanwhile, Clement spent the offseason working to gain back the trust of the coaching staff.
That process has been ongoing, including several discussions with Chryst and Settle about leadership and maturity, in addition to his labor-intensive workouts. Over the past eight months, coaches have said they have seen necessary improvements in Clement's focus, restoring their confidence in him.
"He wants to be the best player he can be but also the best person he can be," Chryst said. "I think he values this team and he wants to be a good teammate. I also believe that Corey knows that part of him being a good teammate is being there. We can depend on him. ... I think last year is not a year that he would want to script out, but I think he's tried to learn from it, and I appreciate that about him."
Running back Dare Ogunbowale, one of Clement's closest friends on the team, said the difference has been noticeable. He and Clement spent the offseason pushing each other, using early-morning hours to run in the sand volleyball courts on campus, complete ladder and cone drills and compare weight room performances. Clement has set personal records on the bench press (365 pounds) and squat rack (530 pounds) and gained eight pounds of muscle this summer. But what Ogunbowale has seen extends beyond those sessions.
"He's a great leader, and last year that trait kind of got away just because he was thinking about things he could accomplish personally," Ogunbowale said. "Now we get to see how he's trying to bring the younger guys along with him and know that his success is going to depend on other people's success as well. It's exciting to see what he can do this season."
Some of Clement's objectives no doubt remain self-involved, but he said he has learned he cannot accomplish individual goals without the team. He said he has been able to better compartmentalize his priorities this year. He has been hounded with phone calls from potential sports agents waiting to represent him when he pursues the pros. Clement said he changed his number this summer to avoid the distraction. He has directed all calls to go through his mother.
Latanya acknowledged that Clement still feels the pressure to reach his dream. He has been chasing the NFL since age 7, when he told his mother he would play in the pros. She has imparted a simple message for Corey to obey this year: Stay in the moment. Have fun with the game you love, and everything else will follow.
Clement's on-field play and conduct among teammates and in the community ultimately will determine how well he adjusts to a senior year he never thought he would require. He knows the window to put a stamp on his college career at Wisconsin is closing fast. Given what is at stake, there is little margin for error. But he maintains faith that, through his work ethic and renewed concentration, all will indeed be right in his world again soon, beginning with a date this Saturday against LSU and its much-accomplished tailback.
"I think I'm heavily motivated by everything," Clement said. "Proving the fans wrong, proving the people who think different of me wrong and just proving scouts wrong and proving other opponents wrong. Just letting people know that I came back for a reason and that's to make a name for myself and this team. This is going to be a fun one."