CHICAGO - Although he watched and studied every game from last season roughly a dozen times, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen still can get caught off guard with how explosive and talented junior running back Melvin Gordon can be.
Flipping around the television recently, Andersen stumbled upon Wisconsin’s 56-31 win at Illinois last October. Leaving the game on, Andersen remembered how easy Gordon made his 142-yard, three-touchdown performance look.
“He has the ability at any moment to go all the way any time he touches the football,” said Andersen.
Named one of the 10 “Players to Watch” by the Big Ten on the first day of Big Ten Media Days, Gordon enters his junior season with experience, talent and hype, not to mention plenty of expectations on his shoulders.
The nation’s active career leader in rushing average (8.1 ypc), Gordon ran for 1,609 yards in 2013 despite ranking just 46th nationally in attempts per game (15.9). He rushed for 140 yards in eight of UW’s 13 games in 2013, doing all that as the No.2 tailback and before the most recent offseason in which he pushed to be better at every possible part of his job.
“Melvin has always been the guy who has been the next back up as he’s gone through his career,” said Andersen. “He understands that. He made it very clear when we sat down and talked about his decision to stay that one of the major reasons he’s coming back was because he wanted to be the feature back at the University of Wisconsin on a great football team.
“He came back (and) he is the feature back, so we’re going to see if we’re going to get to be a great football team.”
If the pundits are correct, Wisconsin will compete for a Big Ten championship for the fourth time in the past five seasons, as a recent media survey of Big Ten beat writers picked the Badgers as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten’s newly created West Division. Gordon has heard those rumblings and acknowledged that Wisconsin has goals of going undefeated. But instead of boasting, he has heeded the advice of former tailback, and Heisman finalist, Montee Ball to block out the outside noise.
“I am really hard on myself,” said Gordon. “I am my toughest critics. Expectations from others I don’t really care about too much because they’ll be there. The pressure and things I don’t worry about too much. I remember talking to Montee about it. When he’s coming back off his Heisman candidate season, I asked him how he dealt with it. He said he ignored all of it. He didn’t read anything. I just try to take that advice from him and do the best I can in that area.”
In order to be live up to his own expectation, Gordon acknowledged he needed to be a lot better. In the final seven games of the season, Gordon scored only one touchdown, not to mention a dip in his yards and his involvement in certain offensive situations. Gordon took that to heart.
Senior right tackle Rob Havenstein – who joined Gordon on the Big Ten’s “Player to Watch” list – pointed to a conditioning workout in the heat earlier this month. While some athletes ran for a waste bucket in the corner after a hard run, Gordon grabbed other players to run the stadium’s stairs, just to get more work in.
“Melvin has put himself in a spot to get himself into (the Heisman) conversation with the type of player he is,” Havenstein said. “Just the way he works every single day, he brings it to the grindstone…He wants to win and he’s going to fight with every single breath he has.”
With Wisconsin in transition at wide receiver and possibly at quarterback, the Badgers will lean heavily on Gordon. While he acknowledged giving Gordon 30 carries a game would be a mistake, Andersen said that Wisconsin has to give Gordon more opportunities to catch the ball a season ago (one catch for 10 yards), an area that Gordon has put in a tremendous amount of focus during the offseason.
“He’s a threat wherever he is on the field,” said Andersen.
Gordon said he no longer thinks about his decision to return for his junior season or even envisioning himself at the Heisman Trophy presentation in December. All he is thinking about is being a good role model for backup tailback Corey Clement, just like James White was to Gordon.
And, of course, be great for his teammates.
“James was there for me a lot of the time,” said Gordon. “I really do get frustrated at times when I’m not having a game I want a have or miss a block. That’s where James would help me out and tell me not to hang my head, because I have a lot of football left to play. I understand that. I have to be that guy for Corey now.
“We want to be a great football team. In order to do that, we have to put in the work, and that starts with me.”