Having nixed the NFL for at least one more year in Madison, Melvin Gordon enters his redshirt junior season facing daunting expectations.
That's no surprise coming on the heels of a head-turning 2013 campaign during which he racked up 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns. In fact, online sportsbook Bovada ranks Gordon as the second-most likely non-quarterback to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy, trailing only Georgia tailback Todd Gurley.
Numerous college football writers have set the stage for Gordon's potentially historic season. ESPN.com's Chris Low called Wisconsin's star running back one of "the nation's premier running backs." Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel listed Gordon as a legitimate Heisman candidate. And Travis Haney of ESPN.com picked the Kenosha, Wisconsin, native to have the "most impressive statistical season in college football."
Gordon's coach agrees.
"I think he's the best [running back in the country]," Gary Andersen said in an interview with ESPN.com's Heather Dinich. "Melvin has done everything we've asked him to do, and I believe he's got a tremendous future in this game for many, many years."
Does Gordon merit the hype? Could he become the first Badger to lift the Heisman Trophy since Ron Dayne in 1999?
The leading man
Gordon gained 1,609 yards on the ground last season, but this impressive tally doesn't paint a complete picture of his efficiency and dominance. Splitting carries with James White, now a New England Patriot, and sophomore Corey Clement, Gordon's 206 carries represented just 41.7 percent of the team's total. His average of 7.8 yards per carry was the best in the nation for running backs with at least 200 touches. And he has yet to lose a fumble in his college career.
Gordon also demonstrated remarkable explosiveness, rattling off four runs of 60-plus yards and also rushing for at least 140 yards in eight of the Badgers' 13 games. He accomplished all of these things while being listed on UW's depth chart as the backup tailback.
This year, Gordon will line up as the undisputed first-stringer, which has led some to simply extrapolate his incredible 2013 numbers, suggesting that greatness in 2014 is all but guaranteed.
However, that logic may prove to be flawed. Although Andersen has indicated that Gordon will be used more than he was last season, the potential first-round draft pick will still share carries with Clement.
"I like splitting the ball," Gordon told ESPN.com. "It keeps us fresh throughout the season."
While splitting carries certainly has the potential to hinder a running back's Heisman campaign, it may not pose much of a problem for Gordon this season.
The last time a Wisconsin running back made it to New York City as a Heisman finalist was in 2011, when Montee Ball finished fourth.
That year, Ball split touches with White, taking roughly 68 percent of the carries. Andersen has suggested a similar plan for Gordon and Clement this year.
"Melvin has been used to a 60-40 [split], or maybe 65-35," Andersen said in the same ESPN.com interview. "I think Melvin has positioned himself to be involved a little more than he has been. And not just carries, but in any situation I feel good with him right now."
Ball's 2011 numbers set records. He scored 39 total touchdowns, tying Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders for the most touchdowns in a single season. His yardage, 1,923, nearly reached the magic number of 2,000. And he posted those gaudy numbers while picking up 68 percent of the team's carries, right in the ballpark of where Andersen projects Gordon to end up.
Ball's 2011 numbers don't guarantee success for Gordon. They do, however, demonstrate that it's very possible for a Wisconsin running back to emerge as a Heisman candidate -- even while sharing a significant amount of carries.
Andersen has also made it clear that this season, he is not just expecting carries out of Gordon.
Last season, Gordon caught just a single pass. But Andersen told Dinich that the tailback not only has improved his pass-protection skills, but that he also plans on utilizing Gordon more in the passing game. In April, Gordon said that he has "more confidence" in his pass-catching abilities.
Given that Ball caught 24 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns during his 2011 Heisman-candidate season, more involvement in the screen game will only strengthen Gordon's Heisman case and help his NFL draft stock.
Alabama's Mark Ingram was the last non-quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy when he took the honors to Tuscaloosa in 2009.
It's worth noting that his statistics that season weren't far off from Gordon's 2013 numbers. On 271 carries, Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and scored 17 touchdowns, numbers not too far ahead of Gordon's 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 attempts.
|Melvin Gordon’s 2013 numbers weren’t far off from Mark Ingram’s Heisman-winning campaign in 2009. Gordon is also expected to command between 20 and 25 percent more carries than he did last year.|
|Mark Ingram in 2009|
|Melvin Gordon in 2013|
In today’s air-oriented college football landscape, it will be tough for him to take down frontrunners like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the Heisman race, but it’s clear that the redshirt junior has a legitimate shot at scoring an invitation to the ceremony in December.
The Badgers’ journey begins Saturday against LSU in Houston. If Gordon manages to flourish against an SEC defense like LSU’s, his Heisman stock will skyrocket. And of course, team success for the Badgers will only bolster his case to lift the trophy.
Now, we sit back and enjoy the ride.