By TOM LEA
MADISON – Without prompt, Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock said the past two years — his first two with the team — have flown by. He also said he’s been having a lot of fun coaching senior Montee Ball.
ESPN Wisconsin had a chance to catch up with Hammock, just days before Ball shoots for the NCAA’s all-time touchdown record.
The following is a question and answer with Hammock.
Tom Lea: Obviously there’s been a lot of talk around Montee and deservedly so. What he’s done is pretty phenomenal. How do you approach this week and how does he approach this week knowing he’s on the precipice of something pretty historic?
Thomas Hammock: To be honest we don’t even talk about it. I’m a big believer in letting things happen the way they may. Everything is going to happen in due time the way it’s supposed to. For him, just continue to do the same thing that he’s done week in and week out. He’ll get the same results.
TL: Has he stayed pretty level like that?
TH: He has. It’s been great that way for him. Obviously he’s had some ups and downs, a slow start and some adversity. He’s handled it in stride. I’ve actually had a lot of fun working with him this year. When it’s going great it’s easy. Last year was easy. He played well, he got better and all those things, but this year you see what people are about. It speaks volumes for him as a person and his character for dealing with the things he’s dealt with. He’s coming through on the other side.
TL: That’s what makes it fun for you…
TH: Yeah. That’s life. Football is a great teacher of life. He may have to deal with something similar in the years to come. He can recall back to when he was a senior and he had this or that happen to him, or things didn’t go the way he wanted early, but he stuck with it.
As a coach that is what you constantly try to preach to your players. You want to put them into situations where they can be able to respond down the line. I’ve enjoyed this year to the utmost. We’ve dealt with adversity as a team. We’ve fought and we’ve fought. That’s what it’s about.
TL: I know you weren’t here in 2010, but he didn’t play at all in that Ohio State game. He was talking about maybe going to linebacker. By the way, how good of a linebacker would he have been?
TH: I don’t know. I don’t think he would have been too good (laughing). I don’t know.
TL: I’m just curious though, from what you heard from that, are you surprised that he wanted to just get on the field in any way he possibly could that year? Obviously coach said they were going to keep him at running back.
TH: That surprises me because normally most running backs want to be running backs. I think we embrace that opportunity to be the guy a team could depend on and help a team win any way we can.
TL: He erupts and becomes a national name last year. He scores 39 touchdowns, he’s on all the talk shows and everybody is talking about him and the year he had stats wise. Has he stayed pretty levelheaded throughout all of it, even though he’s become a celebrity of sorts?
TH: In my opinion he’s the same guy I met a year ago. To his credit that’s what makes him special. To go out and continue to practice and practice and practice, and practice the right way, gives you an opportunity to be successful on Saturday’s. He’s been the same person every day since I’ve been here.
TL: I don’t know if you can answer this question, but does he do what he’s done without James White pushing him?
TH: I think so. He’s bought into a certain work ethic of working every day in practice. I think the way he plays is a result of the way he practices. It’s not a result of anybody else. Obviously competition makes people better. I think he has that mindset that he’s going to get better. Same thing with James. James is getting better because he’s practicing better. He’s getting better in practice and he’s doing it on Saturday. Not because of Montee Ball. I think those guys are two independent people. They know how to play football the right way. They are special individuals that way. You see a lot of players and a lot of kids that don’t have that internal drive to be as good as they can be. Those two guys certainly have been.
TL: Maybe it’s because Travis Prentice set the record the same year that Ron Dayne broke the overall rushing yards record that we never really heard of this…
TH: I heard of this because I’m from the MAC (Mid-American Conference). Travis Prentice was a beast. I can say that first and foremost.
TL: I’m just trying to categorize where this touchdown record stands. How prestigious is it? Being a former running back is it something you thought about during your playing days at all?
TH: I think it’s pretty prestigious because if you think about it guys that score this many touchdowns probably don’t last for four years. They’re probably three years and then try their talents at the next level. I think it’s pretty prestigious. I don’t know where it ranks nationally or all those things, but anytime you can get a national record it’s worth its weight.
TL: Is he better this year than he was last year?
TH: I think he’s a better all-around player, which is some of the things we’ve talked about. If you study the tape there are some different parts and things we had to adjust to. What I tried to explain to him, no matter of where you’re playing at people are changing, people are coming and going. You have to stay consistent with the way you work to be the best player possible.
I explained to him that during my junior year I had less yards per carry, but I was a better player than I was as a sophomore. That’s football.
TL: Does he believe in that? Does he believe he’s a better player?
TH: I can’t speak for him, but I tell him that I see different things that I think he’s certainly improved upon from the previous season.
TL: Do you hear anything from NFL people when they come through here?
TH: They ask questions about him. I just give them my opinion. Like I told him, that stuff is out of my control and out of your control. You can’t make somebody like you, love you or all those things. You’ve just got to be the best you can be and hopefully that’s good enough.
TL: You said you’re having a lot of fun coaching him. I’m just curious, what is your reaction going to be if he gets across that goal line for the second time, at home and one senior day?
TH: Hopefully we are in the position to win the game. I’m happy to get a score, obviously, and a touchdown or whatever, but I want to do the things that are going to help us win on Saturday because that is most important. This is a big game. I think our players understand that and I think they’re working to make sure we give ourselves an opportunity to win on Saturday.
TL: Has it even sunk in with you? I don’t want you to speak for Montee, but I’m not sure it’s sunk in for him or if it’s something that will really set in if he does indeed break this record down the road. Has it sunk in? You’re coaching a guy that’s on the brink of something big.
TH: I don’t think so. We’re just enjoying it. You get to this point and you’re enjoying the last couple of weeks you’ve got with them. That’s sunk in more than anything else. This is it. There are only a couple more days I can yell at you. To me, over the last couple weeks especially as we get closer to senior day, you start thinking that was a quick two years. That went quick. It was certainly fun. I’ve enjoyed coaching him for the last two years. It’s been great.
TL: Will it be emotional for you on Saturday?
TH: It’s always emotional. It’s always an emotional game and an emotional day, whether it’s Bradie Ewing or whoever. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and you spend a lot of time with these kids. It is emotional.