MADISON -- Thomas Hammock believes talent can only take a player so far. For him, being talented and being a good football player are separate statuses, and the latter can only be attained through hard work.
That's why the Wisconsin running backs coach may be most impressed by what Melvin Gordon has accomplished off the field since he arrived on campus in 2011. The redshirt sophomore running back's talent has never hid from the public eye, but in Hammock's mind, Gordon's 1,000-plus rushing yards in seven games this season stems more from his willingness to take his natural ability a step further.
"The amount of time he's put into studying tape, studying other players, trying to emulate some of the things they do in their game that he can carry over into his game, I think that's a very underrated thing," Hammock said. "People don't realize how much work he's actually put in to make himself a good player. I can't express that enough. I've been with him his whole career, and this is a kid that's talented, but he matches his work ethic with his talent."
It's the only way a running back -- or any player, for that matter -- could be in the position Gordon is in midway through this season. After the Badgers' first seven games, he's rushed for 1,012 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he's done it all on only 107 carries.
It's no longer premature to tab Gordon as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, as many Wisconsin fans were wishful would happen this year.
"Every running back, every receiver, every college football player, everyone dreams about the Heisman, I'm sure," Gordon said. "I know I do."
That's just about all the Heisman talk Gordon would open up to after the Badgers' practice Tuesday, as players and coaches predictably chose to keep all focus on Wisconsin's game at Iowa two Saturdays from now over any talk of postseason awards.
But this is the time of year, after the season has produced a big enough sample size, where Heisman debating begins to gain steam. And while the national media hasn't ignored Gordon's unbelievable first seven games, he also hasn't been thrown into the mix with other top candidates.
"I wouldn't take him out of (the Heisman race) by any means," quarterback Joel Stave said. "I don't know what the numbers are, but I know he's had a pretty amazing season. It's kind of early still, but I think he's had a heck of a season.
"It seems like the first person who hits him never gets him down. He'll turn a 2-yard run into not even necessarily a 50-, 60-yard run, but I think there are times when he's held up for a 2-yard loss and he'll turn it into a 5-yard, positive play. It's amazing that he's able to do that, and it's huge for our offense."
Understandably, the odds are against Gordon. Only two running backs -- Alabama's Mark Ingram (2009) and USC's Reggie Bush (2005) -- have won the award since former Wisconsin back Ron Dayne hoisted the trophy in 1999, and in this day of spread offenses and dual-threat signal callers, the quarterback position has become even more likely to produce the winner.
Gordon is currently on pace to finish the regular season with 1,735 yards and about 19 touchdowns on the ground, better raw rushing numbers than Ingram and Bush had in their Heisman seasons, and Gordon's current average of 9.5 yards per carry would even surpass Bush's historic 2005 season. The Badgers' big-play weapon has had more than 25 percent of his runs go for 10-plus yards (27-of-107), and more than 10 percent of them go for 20-plus (11-of-107).
Gordon isn't playing against the ultra-tough competition that Ingram was in 2009, and he doesn't have anything close to Bush's receiving numbers. The statistical comparison doesn't necessarily indicate that Gordon should win the award, even if he continues at this pace, especially when competing against this year's top quarterbacks. Reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel has been as impressive as a year ago, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Florida State's Jameis Winston have also recorded gaudy numbers.
But Gordon has a real chance to become the top finisher among running backs and give Wisconsin its second Heisman finalist in a three-year span after former running back Monte Ball finished fourth in 2011.
When Hammock sees Gordon tucked away in the film room, that's the player he's often studying. Gordon spent time before this season to go back and watch film on Ball when he played for the Badgers during that 2011 season.
The best part about watching film, Gordon said, is that he can take bits and pieces from anyone's game and incorporate it into his own. After rushing for at least 140 yards in six of Wisconsin's first seven games, he seems to be taking the right path toward realizing his full potential.
"He's been pretty consistent every week," Hammock said. "This has been a culmination of three years of work that he's put in to get to this moment, and I'm just happy to see him have an opportunity to show what he can do."
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