The Badgers' running back preps for LSU, expanded role
The trick to keeping your composure — and your lunch — on those mid-summer stair runs is a sturdy meal.
Weeks before camp, Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein watched as many of teammates ran the stairs at Camp Randall. Many gave out and ran to a garbage can. Not Melvin Gordon.
“It depends on what you eat,” Gordon said. “There are different things that play a factor. I try to hold it together.”
Havenstein says Gordon is just being modest. He’s watched Wisconsin’s star running back push himself to the brink in more places than just the stadium steps.
“You felt like he wasn’t satisfied,” Havenstein said.
Gordon isn’t satisfied with what his role can be for Wisconsin. For the last two seasons, he’s been a piece in Badgers’ ground game machine but not the complete focal point.
That will change Saturday against LSU.
A running back leading the way for Wisconsin isn’t a new development, but the Badgers will lean on Gordon in ways they haven’t in recent years.
When Gordon was a freshman, he was the third-leading rusher behind Montee Ball and James White. Last season, Gordon and White split carries essentially half and half. Gordon has only had to carry the ball 20 times in a game twice during the last two seasons. But now White is gone, and Gordon’s new running mate is sophomore Corey Clement, who carried 57 times for 547 yards last season.
At the same time, Wisconsin has a questionable situation in the passing game where former defensive back Tanner McEvoy is set to take over for incumbent drop-back passer Joel Stave. Either way, the Wisconsin quarterback does not have a returning receiver who caught more than 10 passes last season.
In other words, the Wisconsin offense may begin and end with Gordon.
“He’s said it many times: he wants to be a feature back on a great Wisconsin team,” second-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “He’s the feature back, and let’s see if we’re a great team.”
Andersen will find out where Wisconsin stands in a hurry. The Badgers are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the Big Ten West, but their clout on the national stage will be determined by Saturday’s opener in Houston against LSU.
Though the Tigers generally have a stout defense, LSU’s front seven has been decimated by early entries to the NFL Draft in recent years. The Tigers replaced both defensive tackles and shuffled a linebacker corps that underachieved last season.
Even if the LSU defense is rebuilding, Gordon intends to be ready.
He rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 carries last season and has been among the national leaders in yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. With fresh legs, Gordon has averaged 8.3 yards per carry in his career.
Without Ball, White or a consistent passing game, Gordon may need to retain that explosiveness even if he’s regularly hitting the 20-carry mark, something that’s never been required of him. He also hopes to be a more consistent presence on third down.
As a redshirt sophomore, Gordon could have left for the NFL in a draft that didn’t see a running back selected until the 54th pick. Even if Gordon would have left school early and been the first back selected, he had no guarantee of being a coveted first-round pick. That may have to wait.
“Melvin had a laundry list of what he wanted to get better at, and I completely agreed,” Andersen said. “A couple things are important him — grasping of pre-snap awareness, what’s out there on the defensive side of the football. And No. 2 Melvin wants to be a very good pass protector. He’s worked hard at that and he wants to be more involved in the throw game.”
While Andersen says he’s watched Gordon work with the passing machine after practice, he had to put a stop to Gordon’s work in the weight room.
The 510-pound squat was where he drew the line.
“Who cares how much more he can squat?” Andersen said.
Gordon, it seems, agreed.
“I have a problem sometimes,” Gordon said. “I worked really hard last year and every year I feel like I’m not working as hard as I worked last year. Sometimes it probably hurts me more than it helps. My strength coaches talked to me about it because you don’t want your body to fail you during camp.”
Gordon will be far too important to Wisconsin’s hopes in 2014 beyond just the opener against LSU. The Badgers will need Gordon fresh for a November stretch that could determine the division. Wisconsin’s final three regular season games will be against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
At least Andersen knows he won’t need to be a taskmaster for his key player before then.
“Some kids they walk out of the facility, you wonder how much do they really care about football,” Andersen said. “With that one you don’t have to worry about it.”