How Melvin Gordon Became College Football's Most Underappreciated Superstar

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How Melvin Gordon Became College Football's Most Underappreciated Superstar
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You don’t realize how extraordinary Melvin Gordon is until you stand next to him, when he has finally stopped moving. Then, when the blur comes into focus and you study his enormous frame, you start to ponder how you could possibly bring down the game’s most explosive player.

As much as you casually still brag about your 40-time in high school—which gets faster each year, somehow—that ain’t happening. Let’s just forget about that.

Should you get in front of him? He’s 6’1” and nearly 215 pounds. Although Gordon hasn’t acquired the reputation of being a battering ram, he could be if it was necessary. When you can essentially run past or around anyone and everyone with uncanny consistency, why do anything else?

Then you remember something else. You remember that Gordon, who ran for more than 1,600 yards last season, has yet to actually start a game for the Badgers. That moment will finally come on Saturday when Wisconsin takes on LSU in the most exciting (and important) game of Week 1. 

“His role will be amped up, without question,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “He’s ready, he’s excited and so are we.”

For the past three years, Gordon has been utilized in a reserve role. That term should come with an asterisk the size of a cartoon-ish Wisconsin Bloody Mary, because this isn’t your average backup. In 2013, for example, he logged just 28 fewer carries than starter James White.

But it has never truly been his show; he’s always shared duties, and thus, the spotlight.

Because of this, the buzz regarding the Kenosha, Wisconsin, native has never been what it should be. The Heisman whispers have started and the limelight has intensified, although the attention on his play has never matched the excitement of the long, juke-filled runs and dumbfounding numbers.

“He wants to be a great team leader and he wants to be a feature back on a great team at the University of Wisconsin,” Andersen said. “So we’re going to work like crazy to help him make that happen.”

Corey Clement, who served as the team’s third back last season, will essentially step into Gordon’s role in 2014. The sophomore, who showed tremendous promise during his freshman season, is a name you will learn quickly, perhaps as early as Saturday night. Like everyone else, however, Clement is just watching, learning and observing as his teammate does unthinkable things.

“Melvin is just Melvin,” Clement recently said to Zach Heilprin of ESPNWisconsin.com. “He pulls out some things that you thought weren’t humanly possible."

On the eve of Gordon's coronation as the next leader of the legendary Badgers backfield, it is apropos to remember his "Hello, World" moment. 

It was the opening drive of the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game; Wisconsin sent its third-string running back in motion. As the lanky back glided behind the corn-fed wall of designated human movers—a Madison specialty, and a huge part of the yearly running success—the unknown ball-carrier took the handoff and darted for the outside.

If you’re a Nebraska fan, now would be the appropriate time to close your computer, light it on fire and go for a stroll.

The play looked doomed. Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford read the exchange perfectly. He closed, although an unforeseen juke toward the sideline forced Stafford to dive in a last-ditch effort to keep his man from running free. He caught only jersey and held on for as long as he could. As he did, the “25” on the back of the vibrant red uniform seemed to double in size, foreshadowing things to come.

No. 25 broke free, and the number vanished as the mystery player turned up field. It was then P.J. Smith’s turn to try and bring him down, although the next safety up didn’t stand a chance in the open field. One simple jukewell, it was simple for him—and Smith, like his teammate, was grasping at shoelaces.

A great block from wideout Jared Abbrederis was all that remained: 56 yards later, No. 25 coasted to the end zone, erasing the zeroes that had just been placed on the scoreboard. A stadium of onlookers and a nation of television viewers scrambled to figure out who that was.

Melvin Gordon had arrived.

He finished the evening as Wisconsin’s leading rusher despite only logging nine carries. He turned those carries into 216 yards. The Badgers won 70-31.

Gordon parlayed his success in this game into a monster 2013, a year in which he turned 206 carries into 1,609 yards. He also had three runs of 70 yards or more—which was tops in the nation—and delivered at least one 20-yard run in nine of 13 games.

Over the past two seasons, Gordon has seven rushes of 50 yards or more. 

More impressive than the game-breaking plays and total yardage, however, is how he’s been able to reach these thresholds while sharing the football with other NFL-caliber backs. 

Since stepping foot in Madison, Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry.

I repeat, 8.1 yards per carry.

No matter how many times you take his career rushing yards (2,328) and divide by the total carries (288), it still doesn’t make much sense. To further drive home this point, here’s how Gordon’s YPC compares to some of the recent and all-time greats.

College Running Back Comparisons (YPC)
Name School Yard Per Carry
Melvin Gordon Wisconsin 8.1
Barry Sanders Oklahoma State 6.8
Adrian Peterson Oklahoma 5.4
Reggie Bush USC 7.3
Eddie George Ohio State 5.5
Earl Campbell Texas 5.8
Bo Jackson Auburn 6.6
Herschel Walker Georgia 5.3

www.sports-reference.com

That’s not to say Gordon belongs in the conversation with some of these historic giants just yet, but the sample size is big enough where you almost feel obligated to match up certain aspects of their resumes side by side.

You can’t help but do more math.

If Gordon carried the ball just 206 times and managed to run for more than 1,600 yards last year, what kind of season could be within reach with a bigger workload against a schedule that eases up plenty after LSU? Two thousand yards? A Heisman?

The questions are both fair and legitimate, although the move to starter might not be as significant as some might make it out to be. At the very least, this is where Gordon’s on-field carnage and off-field calm go their different ways at the fork in the road.

Andy Manis/Associated Press

"If I get 30 to 35 carries a game, that means Corey is hurt, and we can't have that," Gordon told ESPN.com's Brian Bennett. "I like splitting the ball. It keeps us fresh throughout the season. Me and James were really fresh last year, and that helped us play so well."

It would appear that he and his head coach have talked this out.

“Melvin is not going to carry the ball 35 times a game,” Andersen said. “But he will be much more involved as an every-down back for us.”

Gordon’s debut as an every-down back will come at NRG Stadium in Houston against LSU, one of the nation’s most successful college teams of the past decade. A Melvin Gordon-like performance in the bright lights of opening weekend will only propel his football reputation closer to where it should be. It will also, almost certainly, propel Wisconsin to a win.

It’ll be up to LSU head coach Les Miles to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“He’s one of those guys that gives you a concern because he’s a big strong physical back that can make you miss,” Miles said, via Hunter Paniagua of Tigers Sport Digest. “You’re going to have to tackle well. Tackling is what you do on defense and it’s the first thing you do. It’s tremendously important in this game. We have to tackle well.”

It’s a daunting task. It’s even more daunting now that the offseason is over and Gordon will no longer be standing still. The blur is back in business.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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