Still getting used to all the attention that comes with being the No. 1 running back at Wisconsin, junior Melvin Gordon is primed for a Heisman Trophy run.
Under the spotlight
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - This is what Melvin Gordon wanted.
No, not all the cameras around him. And no, not the countless media requests or swarm of people that flock to him when he goes out in public sometimes.
No, what he wanted was to be the No. 1 running back at the University of Wisconsin, and that’s exactly what the junior is as the No. 14 Badgers get ready to start the 2014 season in Houston against No. 13 LSU this Saturday.
To be the lead back was one of the reasons he returned to Wisconsin and put his NFL dreams on hold. When he made that decision, the expectations for what the Kenosha Bradford alum could accomplish, behind an offensive line that returned largely intact from last season, skyrocketed. Talk of a Heisman Trophy, he's got the fourth best odds according to Las Vegas, and rushing for 2,000 yards were mentioned – two things that haven’t happened at Wisconsin since the mid-to-late 1990s. And while those items are certainly in Gordon’s mind, even he is overwhelmed at times with what people expect to see him do this fall.
“Well, but it gets tough at times,” Gordon said this week of handling the expectations. “I already have high expectations for myself, and now everyone has high expectations for me.
“I’m stressing a little bit more than I usually do. And I shouldn’t be, because I actually went back and watched film of last year of me during camp, and I feel like I’m playing better. I had a better camp.
“I just stress for no reason. I feel like I’m not working hard enough sometimes, and that’s not the case. I’ve just got to clear that out and get ready to play.”
Few, if any, Badgers work harder than Gordon. The story told by ESPN the Magazine
, of him pulling out a rope ladder and doing drills in his front yard after a night out, isn’t uncommon. The 6-foot-1, 213-pound, Gordon was almost always one of the last ones to leave the field during spring practice.
"Melvin has worked hard enough, and he’s done enough to prepare," UW coach Gary Andersen said this week. "I couldn’t ask him to do any more from a leadership standpoint (or) how hard he’s worked."
Gordon and his backfield mate, sophomore Corey Clement, put in the extra work in winter and spring in hopes of it paying off this season, starting with LSU. And a good game for Gordon against one of the powerhouses of the SEC would only raise the expectations further.
“It will add more hype to everything, man, but whatever. I just want to win,” Gordon said. “That’s the big thing. You don’t really think about the praise and all that. I just want to win the game.”
It's that team mentality that sticks out to Andersen.
"He stated (his intentions from) the very beginning," the second-year coach said. ‘I want to be the featured tailback on a great team at the University of Wisconsin.’ That’s his biggest goal. It’s not, ‘hey, I want to do this, I want to do that, I want this award.’ I’ve never heard that come out of his mouth. Would he like to get those? Absolutely. Would we like him to? Yes, and we’re going to work like crazy to help him reach his goals."
Clement, who will play Robin to Gordon’s Batman this year, wants what Gordon has. He watched last year as James White and Gordon combined for 3,053 yards on the ground – an FBS record for a pair of teammates. He and Gordon have grown closer now that it’s their show, but even he tries to steer away from talking about expectations.
“Only when it’s brought up to us,” Clement said of the Heisman talk. “Off the field wise we really don’t like to talk about football. We like to try and stay away from it at times, because like Coach (Andersen) said, you just want to feel like a regular student sometimes. We just kick back a lot, play video games, talk it up sometimes and have fun.”
Feeling like a regular student isn’t easy for Gordon. He’s the most recognizable face on this year’s Badgers team, and people are constantly telling him about all the great things they anticipate he’ll do this year. He’s put himself in this position because of how explosive and productive he’s been to this point in his career.
Most feel like the 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns he had a year ago were just the tip of the iceberg. He did his damage carrying the ball just 15.9 times per game, which ranked 46th nationally. His career per carry average of 8.1 yards will be a Big Ten record after 12 more carries, and it leaves him just shy of the FBS record of 8.26 set by Army’s Glen Davis in the 1940s.
What draws people to Gordon, outside of a smile he wears almost 24/7, is his big play ability. He was tied or led the country in runs of 60 or more yards (4) and 70 or more yards (3).
When you are the physical freak that Gordon is, and you’re a threat to go the distance every time you touch the ball, people expect you to succeed all the time.
“He’s not really too open about it, but I can see sometimes the stress weighs on him,” Clement said. “That’s what comes with being the star impact player here at Wisconsin. He’s expected to win the Heisman, but I really don’t want to keep bringing it up to him a lot because we’re here to play (one) game at a time.”
Gordon talked in the offseason about his reasons for coming back, a decision that likely kept him from being the first running back off the board in May’s draft. He called the decision bittersweet after seeing how it played out, but he wasn’t looking back. In addition to the individual accolades out there, he wants to take UW to places it hasn’t been before. He put the logos for the College Football Playoff and Texas Advocare Kickoff on his bedroom wall to serve as motivation. And he wants to leave a lasting impact in Madison, similar to that of the last Heisman Trophy winner at Wisconsin – Ron Dayne.
“Everyone knows Ron Dayne,” Gordon said last month at Big Ten media days. “I mean everyone. Everyone in Madison, little kids, everyone. Wearing '33' jerseys, everyone knows him.”
Outside of individual and team success, Gordon is back because he needed to get better at certain aspects of his game. He was self-aware enough to know that he didn't possess all the answers.
"Not very many young men, that are in the spotlight and the primetime that he’s in, will actually sit back and identify and say, ‘Coach, I need to get better at this.’," Andersen said. "And he prided himself on it, and I believe that he has gotten better a certain things."
A year ago, former running backs coach Thomas Hammock had unlimited trust in White to protect quarterback Joel Stave in passing situations. He didn’t have that type of faith in Gordon. So when new running backs coach Thomas Brown arrived in the spring, he knew what it would take for Gordon to be an all-around back. At this point, the junior is vastly improved in that respect.
“Absolutely, he’s done a lot better,” Brown said this week. “Like I tell guys all the time … it’s fairly natural to have the ball in your hands -- you’ve been doing this since you were a little kid -- but picking up 245 pound linebackers who can move is a different story. But he’s definitely getting better (and) continuing to work.”
Though Brown was not his coach a year ago, he doesn’t believe there’s been a big change in Gordon’s mental status when it comes to handling outside expectations.
“Not from what I can tell,” he said. “The times I’ve talked to him about it is mentally trying to focus on taking it one day at a time. Obviously people put expectations on him, and have high expectations for him coming into this year based on what he did in the past, but that’s irrelevant. It’s just based from here on out.
“I think he’s done well for the most part. He’s done a pretty good job of being a leader, more by example than vocally, but I haven’t seen a change at all.”
Gordon’s time in the spotlight figures to increase if he continues what he started last year. It’s something that will take a little getting used to. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt was in Madison recently to do an interview with the tailback, and Gordon confessed on Twitter
afterwards how nervous he was about it.
Where he rarely appears nervous is on the field, a place where he does things that will be difficult to forget.
“Melvin is just Melvin,” Clement said. “He just pulls out some things that you thought weren’t humanly possibly.”
However this ends for Gordon, whether it be with a Heisman Trophy, a national title or anything in between, he's proved to those around him that he's something special.
"I have great respect for the way that young man has carried himself," Andersen said. And (I) will forever, because of the way he’s handled the high volume of publicity that he has out there."
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin