Dec. 31, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- Just for grins, UW running back coach John Settle decided to expose his players to an old school tailback. So he retrieved a film projector – “It was hidden away in my basement’’ – and set it up in his office at Camp Randall Stadium. A projector? With 16 mm film? You can imagine the reaction.
“At first, I didn’t know what it was until he turned it on,’’ Montee Ball said.
“I thought, ‘Man, what’s he putting on?’’’ James White said.
“He said he had a surprise for us,’’ John Clay said.
The real surprise was the identity of the old school tailback on the film.
“It was funny to see our coach back in the day on black and white film,’’ Clay said.
“Seeing your coach run like that was just crazy,’’ Ball said.
“We didn’t know it was him at first,’’ White said.
Settle anticipated the response. “After I got them up off the floor – they were laughing so hard – I think they were pretty impressed,’’ he said. “They didn’t know the old man could move that way.’’
As a collegian, John Settle rushed for a school-record 4,645 yards and 44 touchdowns at Appalachian State. He even had his number (23) retired. In 1988, Settle became the first free agent in National Football League history – he was undrafted – to rush for over 1,000 yards.
That same season, Settle also proved to be a pass-catching threat out of the backfield for the Atlanta Falcons with 570 receiving yards. Combined with his running prowess, he was named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Madden team, a tribute to his toughness.
“Every once in a while, I’ll dig up some of the old footage,’’ said Settle, who played six seasons in the NFL with the Falcons and Washington Redskins, “and we’ll have one of those days where I’ll say, ‘This is how you run this play’ and I’ll throw it up on the screen.
“And they’ll say, ‘Is that you coach?’
“Yeah, that’s me.’’
Settle has received some favorable reviews, too.
“He was very aggressive,’’ Ball said.
“He always talks to us about running with a purpose, and he did,’’ Clay said.
“You could see he was a great back in his prime,’’ White said.
How would that John Settle – the prime-time Settle – measure up with his current stable of tailbacks?
“I was one of those guys who was kind of a glider,’’ Settle said. “I kind of ran like James White. I played at about 208 pounds. James is around 202. But I didn’t have his top-end speed.’’
By his own admission, Settle relied more on his quickness and toughness. “The thing that I had,’’ he said, “was that I could pull out of tacklers, I could break tackles. I could get my pads down and reduce that hitting surface for defenders making life tough on those guys.’’
Settle has used some of his video as a teaching tool.
“Earlier in the season, I was trying to get Montee Ball to run out of tacklers,’’ Settle said. “I wanted him to pick up his knees. We call it ‘pop your knees’ and he wasn’t doing it. So I went back and found some old film and I pointed out, ‘Hey, this is what it looks like.’
“In the Michigan game, there was one run where Montee pulled out of a tackle, popped his knees and scored. By the time he got back to the sidelines James and John were saying, ‘Hey, that’s the way to pop out of a tackle.’ I knew then the message had caught on.’’
Ball went to school on Settle’s moves.
“You could see he had one mission while he was running and that was to score every time,’’ Ball said. “Having a coach who played our position is a good thing.’’
In truth, Settle has probably done his best coaching job with Ball, who was an after-thought in the rotation through the first three Big Ten games. He didn’t even play against Ohio State. So, how did Settle keep Ball motivated when he wasn’t getting the ball?
“I just continued to reinforce to him, ‘You’re still one play (from being on the field) and you need to study film and prepare like you’re going to play,’’’ Settle said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to get into a habit and routine of coming in and studying and understanding what we’re doing because if you’re thrown into the fire and you haven’t prepared, I don’t want you to embarrass yourself or your family.’
“That’s all it took. Montee loves his family. He loves his mom and dad. All I did was keep that at the forefront. That was the picture I always presented to him and to his credit he did it. But I did call him into the office to get a feel for where he was after the Ohio State game.
“He said, ‘Coach, when you put the film on, the two best guys are playing.’ So he was able to see that James had gone past him and John was performing well. The one thing he assured me was that if he ever got a chance (to get back into the rotation), he was going to get it done.
“Ever since the Iowa game, he has been different. I believe success breeds success. He’s so competitive and in his mind he really believed that we needed him to play. When that happens you get a little more finish to each rep and there’s more attention to detail because now he feels involved.’’
Ball got progressively better over the final four weeks to the point where he looked like he had an extra gear in the regular season finale against Northwestern.
“He was in a different zone that game,’’ Settle said. “They talk about a basketball player being in a zone, Montee was feeling it. He didn’t prepare any differently that week, but he did look like he had picked up a step or two.’’
When White walked into training camp, everybody knew that he had a different speed to his game.
“The first practice, he made a couple of people miss and took the ball down the sidelines,’’ Settle said. “It was like ‘Whoa’ and the next day he did it again. You could see that he was going to be a great contributor because every time he touched the ball something good was happening.’’
White can make it look easy.
“As the season has gone on, he’s gotten comfortable with the offense and understands what we’re doing,’’ Settle said. “Now it’s a matter of staying within the system. If we’re running a zone play, he needs to trust his footwork. Early on, his quickness helped him and he was able to make a couple of runs that maybe Montee and John would not have made.
“But it’s not always going to be that way. When a play is blocked a certain way, your footwork and the scheme has to be the same and glue up. I never use the word freelancing. Our guys are pretty good when it comes to staying within the realm of things.
“From Monday through Thursday, I’m just making sure they understand what they have to do. I always tell them, “Friday and Saturdays? That’s your show.’’’
Settle has no concerns over Clay bouncing back in the Rose Bowl after a disjointed second half to the season.
“He got his ankles squared away and he was going along pretty good,’’ Settle said of the Clay who carried the load in the Ohio State and Iowa games. “And then he hurts his knee at Purdue and that got into his head a little bit. But he’s beginning to get that confidence back.’’
Where’s Clay’s head today?
“I’m back to 100 percent,’’ Clay said Thursday. “I’ve been studying like I’m going to be the starter. But whatever happens happens. I’m just ready to get back on the field. I have to an edge when I get out there. I have to make sure I’m running hard every play.’’
Ball and White overshadowed Clay the final weeks of the regular season when Clay was less than 100 percent. But White was quick to point out that Clay “handled it very well. It’s a brotherhood. It doesn’t matter who’s playing, we’re all cheering for each other.’’
The “all for one’’ and “one for all’’ attitude has pleased Settle.
“Each one of the wants to be on the field,’’ Settle said. “And they each bring something different to the table. Because of injuries, we needed all three at different points this year. But they pull for each other. When one scores, the other two are usually the first to greet him coming off the field.
“We’ve been lucky that we haven’t gotten a few penalties for excessive celebration. But that’s the way they are. They’ll come in and watch game film together. They’ve created a bond that you love to see as a coach. And it’s genuine. Our goal from day one has been to create competition and play the best player. Whether it’s a freshman, a walk-on or a senior, the best guy is going to be on the field.’’
That competition theme runs in Settle’s own family. Settle’s two sons, Jon and Leighton, played in the same backfield this past season at Fresno City College. No. 23 is Leighton Settle, a 6-foot, 190-pound tailback. No. 34 is Jon Settle, a 5-11, 235 pound fullback. Both played at Madison West.
Karen Settle got the chance to see her sons play once. Dad was tied up.
“I had business to take care of on Saturdays,’’ he said, grinning. And now there’s some unfinished business in Pasadena.
“When I got the opportunity to take this Wisconsin job, I took it for two reasons,’’ John Settle said. “One, I wanted to coach some of the best players in the country. Especially because of the tradition of the running back position at this school. Secondly, I wanted to coach in the Rose Bowl.’’
The question du jour, every jour for a month, has been, “How are the Badgers going to utilize their three tailbacks against TCU?’’ Settle grinned again.
“If you had guys whose egos would get in the way, it could become a problem, but it isn’t a problem for us,’’ he said. “At some point those three guys are going to be in the ballgame trying to help us win. But if we get someone who’s hot and making things happen … ‘’
He’ll be popping his knees and staying in.
The old school tailback wouldn’t have it any other way.