INDIANAPOLIS — For all the hours of prep work, the grief and the grind, there’s one thing Corey Clement can’t run away from at the NFL combine: 2015.
“Every single team has asked me about 2015,” the former Wisconsin Badgers tailback said of a star-crossed junior season to forget. “And I just said, ‘It was a year of growth.’ ”
In hindsight, it was a year off the rails. A victory lap gone horribly, horribly wrong. Sports hernia surgery wiped out eight games. A donnybrook that led to punches — and the choice to mislead Badgers coaches about said donnybrook — wiped out another.
After sparkling during spot duty as Melvin Gordon’s backup in 2013 and 2014, 2015 was supposed to be The Year of Corey, the preamble to a Heisman Watch and NFL draft glory.
Only 2015 didn’t get the damn memo, and Clement seemed to pour salt into every open wound. He pouted. He groused. He cheesed-off teammates. He was, by own admission, a pain in the backside, the goof’s goof.
“Like I said, everybody has a downfall at some point in their life,” said Clement, who’s slated to take part in timing drills Friday along with most of the other tailbacks in his draft class. “And mine, unfortunately, came in my junior year of college.
“And (I explained) how that (encouraged) me to slow everything down, take a deep breath, step back, just say, ‘Listen, you’re not the only one in the world that messed up.’ The least you can do is be honest and say you learned from it and just being cooperative and showing that you’re really for a football team and not yourself.”
He acquiesced. He grew the hell up, because the alternative was getting the hell out.
“I would say coach (Paul) Chryst definitely helped me change my view on things,” Clement explained. “He knows I was looking so far ahead, about to be a rising star in 2015, and knew I was going to have something right in front of me. (And) I immediately got struck down by injury and, you know, off-the-field issues.
“But he just brought it back and said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to be for the team. I know you’re a great, honest person … a true friend to anybody on the team.’ He just always said, ‘Stay humble, stay true, and when your number’s called upon, be ready for the fight.’ ”
Tasked with proving 2015 was the exception and not the norm — Bad Corey, not Real Corey — the New Jersey native responded last fall with 1,375 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, shining as the anchor of an offense built on ground and pound, time of possession, ruthless efficiency and minimal mistakes. Despite ankle issues in September, Captain Unreliable became Mr. Reliable again, with seven 100-yards-or-more rushing games in his final eight regular-season appearances.
“It was definitely a second chance,” Clement said. “I felt as if I lost my lead role … Dare (Ogunbowale) was the No. 1 guy for a while, but I just had to work my way back and earn (Chryst’s) trust.
“Which is definitely the way I wanted it. I didn’t want anything to get handed back to me.”
Because Bad Corey was also Entitled Corey. And once enough whispers of bad reputations hit the ground, they tend to blow through the NFL community like small brushfires.
Spring, then, is about dousing the flames, poking holes in the case scouting departments have built against you. One NFC North scout was particularly unkind this past November when he told NFL.com:
“I never got the hype on Corey Clement. He’s a bull-in-a-china-shop back. I mean, he runs hard, don’t get me wrong, but playing in the NFL is about more than running hard. I see him as just another (running) back.”
Lovely. And a scout on Clement’s NFL.com page — the combine tracker of record — didn’t exactly stop piling on:
“He checked out mentally on the entire 2015 season and wasn’t very well liked inside that program. Then you add durability concerns and that’s a problem.”
Fortunately for Clement, Thursday wasn’t. His 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press tied for 11th among the 30 running backs who participated in the drill — something to build on.
“I think he’s going to do really well (here),” teammate and backfield mate Ogunbowale said. “He’s like my brother; we’re really close. That’s why I’m excited for him to show what he’s able to do and kind of push the negatives about him to the side.
“He’s always (been) about proving people wrong. He’s obviously had a lot of naysayers, and with his junior year he’s had people write him off as kind of not a good player. And he is. Honestly, Corey is one of the biggest talents at running back. So to see wherever he ends up, I’m excited to see what he’s about to do at the next level, too.”
The personnel types, meanwhile, are excited to see what Clement can do this weekend on the pass blocking and pass receiving side of things, two elements to his game the former Wisconsin back said he’d flashed more often during his first two seasons in Madison.
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“It’s just getting back into the swing of things,” said Clement, who ran for 26 yards in the Senior Bowl on three carries. “I’m not one to second guess why I couldn’t stay in on third down (in 2016). So it was all about being for the team and giving everybody else some touches as well. Like I said, I want to be able to showcase (catching) and I think I showcased it in the Senior Bowl.”
You change the narrative where you can, because you can’t change the past. The ankle. The hernia. The brain farts. 2015. The stopwatch doesn’t care how you got here nearly as much as the when.
“(It’s about) just being straightforward, being honest,” Clement said. “Because they already know the answer.”