Photo: Getty Images
Back to Iowa
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Whether it was intentional or not (it was), the yellow sweatshirt Melvin Gordon was wearing on Monday raised some eyebrows. Though covered up by a jacket the University of Wisconsin running back was wearing, the hooded sweatshirt looked very much like something an athlete would wear at the University of Iowa – the Badgers opponent this week and the school Gordon originally committed to play for just prior his senior year at Kenosha Bradford.
Several reporters asked him about his choice of attire and – while laughing – he zipped the jacket down to reveal the “G” of the Green Bay Packers and not the Tigerhawk logo that adorns Hawkeyes apparel.
Gordon maintained that it was the only warm piece of clothing he could find as he headed out of his Madison apartment earlier in the day. But he also had to realize what the color would make people think after his change of mind in the fall of 2010 – when several months after committing to Kirk Ferentz, he informed the Iowa coach he’d decided to come to Wisconsin instead.
“It was just about being closer to home (and the) atmosphere,” Gordon said of the change. “I was in love with Iowa. You go back to one of my pictures, I had custom made hats with Iowa on it. I had Iowa gear but sometimes, later in (your) recruitment, you just get a change of heart. I think that’s what happened.
“I’m totally, completely happy with my decision.”
Nearly everybody connected with Wisconsin athletics is happy as well.
UW coach Gary Andersen, who first saw Gordon in a limited role (two carries, 18 yards) in the Badgers 16-14 win over Andersen’s Utah State team last year, knew how special the running back could be when watching film of the Big Ten Championship Game. That was the game that Gordon carried nine times for 216 yards against Nebraska in a 70-31 victory for the Badgers.
“If you watched him in the championship game a year ago, you saw a kid with incredible talent that did some special things and we saw glimpses of it in spring ball,” Andersen said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “He continues to amaze me week in and week out.”
He does the same for the Badgers defenders. While the first-team offense and defense rarely matchup during the season, linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong saw plenty of Gordon during fall camp and from the sideline during games to be sold on his talent.
“I’m glad he chose Wisconsin,” Borland admitted. “He’s one of the best running backs in the country. It’d be a tall task to have to defend him.”
“He’s kind of the whole package,” Armstrong added. “He’s physical. He breaks tackles. He’s got great vision. He just does everything well. And then he’s got that breakaway speed where he’ll get away from you. And he’s so consistent. It’s not a different Melvin here or there. It’s kind of the same guy you’re going to get, day in and day out every carry.”
Gordon leads the Big Ten and his fourth in the country in rushing yards per game at 144.6. He reached 1,000 yards on just 105 carries – the fewest in school history, breaking James White record of 138 carries in 2010. What sets him apart is the big play ability. Gordon’s got more runs of 20 yards or more (18) than negative yardages runs (12) in his career.
“I think that not only is he extremely fast, it’s also deceptive speed because he's a long strider so guys don’t always take the best angles,” Borland said. “He can do it all. He’s got shake. He can lower his shoulder on guys. I don’t know if I’ve played against a more explosive back. There’s guys that maybe do the little things better right now than Melvin, but as far as big play potential, he’s probably the best.”
All of Gordon’s success has come while sharing time with White. Something that Andersen finds almost more impressive than what he’s done on the field.
“I've never heard Melvin say ‘It's about me,’ or ‘I'm doing this.’ With Melvin it's about his offensive line and tight ends and fullback and quarterback involved, gives James (White) just as much credit as (himself), in fact more credit so far.”
It wasn’t always that way. Gordon admitted that he didn’t understand how players looking for the same playing time could coexist in the same backfield.
“I saw (James) and Montee (Ball and) how they worked things out,” he said. “How close they were. I wasn’t for that when I got here. You kind of think we’re competing for the same spot. How could you be friends? But after awhile you kind of understand you need those guys to help you become a better player.”
Gordon also took it upon himself to become a better player, training harder and becoming more serious about his work off the field in getting ready for the season. And it didn’t hurt that he felt slighted when certain publications didn’t consider him one of the better returning running backs in the conference.
“I used that as motivation and really trained myself in the offseason with (head strength) coach (Evan) Simon,” Gordon said. “When I got here (in the summer) I trained hard as well. I pushed some other players and some other players pushed me. I think that’s definitely one of the reason’s why results are showing on Saturday’s.”
Andersen believes it also has to do with what happens on the practice field each week with running backs coach Thomas Hammock.
“It's incredible,” Andersen said of the practices. “A lot of that credit goes to Coach (Thomas) Hammock and the way he pushes those kids. But the kids buy into the hard coaching and the demands he puts on them because they know it produces on the field if they listen and they have the talent.”
Gordon has the talent and will take it this weekend to the place where, at one time, he thought he’d be spending his college years. Instead, he’ll go into Kinnick Stadium with a target on his back – both from the Iowa players and the fans.
“I’m expecting it,” Gordon said of fans lashing out at him on Twitter and other social media sites. “But I won’t let it bother me at all.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin