MADISON – At the University of Wisconsin, football coach Bret Bielema believes if a player shows enough promise and is good enough to play, regardless of age and position, he will get on the field.
That was the case last season with true freshman James White, whose agility and speed allowed him to rush for a team-high 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns, earned conference Freshman of the Year honors. Another freshman running back, Melvin Gordon, might not achieve the same success as White this season, but Gordon seems to be in Bielema’s plans despite the team’s loaded backfield.
With John Clay heading to the NFL and Zach Brown transferring to Pittsburgh, Gordon, the 6-1, 200-pound talent from Kenosha, has done what any young player needs to do in fall camp: take daily steps forward.
“The first day … he was all over the place,” Bielema said. “The second day was a little bit better, (Monday) was a lot better, and the jump from (Monday) to (Tuesday) was big-time. I don’t think he’s ever been involved in detail (pass) protection. He stepped up there in the end, and I think his learning curve is going to be very steep. … Melvin is going to be a very good football player here.”
Gordon heard Bielema’s comments after Wednesday’s first day in full pads.
“It makes me feel good, but I don’t try to think about all that other stuff,” Gordon said. “I just want to come out here and work every day.”
A three-star recruit and ranked the No. 38 running back in the country in the 2011 recruiting class by Scout.com, Gordon was a 2010 first-team all-state selection at Kenosha Bradford. He was the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association's Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 2,009 yards and 38 touchdowns on 158 carries.
Those numbers speak to his potential and are the reason the Wisconsin coaching staff, particularly new running backs coach Thomas Hammock, has been so hard on Gordon through seven practices. Every time Gordon misses an assignment or makes a mistake, Hammock is in his ear.
When Gordon slowed down at the end of a run and fumbled on a hit, Hammock made Gordon secure the ball under his arm and run laps.
“I like Coach Hammock because he’s definitely a coach that pushes you, works you hard. Sometimes it gets tough, but you are going to get better at the end of the day,” Gordon said. “That’s what you want. Some people want to be good, but he wants us to be great, and he works us to that level. When you are here, you have to step your game up.”
Asked what his best assets are, Gordon said he’s simply focused on the things he must improve. White, though, happily filled in the blanks on the freshman’s assets.
“I feel that he could be further along than (I was last year) because he knows the plays very well and he understands the concepts,” White said. “He’s very talented, he’s fast and I think over the next several weeks, people are going to see a lot from Melvin Gordon.”
Gordon was the subject of an intense recruiting battle between Iowa and Wisconsin. The Badgers were the first school to offer him a scholarship, but Gordon became impressed with Iowa and its running back coach, Lester Erb. That led to an August 2010 commitment.
While still committed to Iowa, Gordon made several unofficial visits to Madison, including for the Ohio State game. And the Badgers’ coaches, including Bielema, still came to watch his high school games. After Gordon took an official visit to Iowa, he made the decision to re-open his recruitment and decided that not only would he be playing closer to home at Wisconsin, he would be a part of a backfield that had three players rush for at least 996 yards last season.
“I saw James come in and play right away last year, and I knew I would have the opportunity to come in and compete,” Gordon said. “I know now that I have to get a lot faster. I see some holes and I tell myself, ‘Burst, burst, burst.’ I miss them sometimes, so I know I am capable of getting faster.
“I just have no regrets. I love my coach, I love my teammates, and I love how they work here. I think I made the right decision.”
Through one week of camp, it’s evident that Wisconsin’s top two running backs are healthier and stronger than last season. Junior Montee Ball has slimmed down 20 pounds and is running with the same speed and power that helped him rush for 996 yards and a team-best 18 touchdowns in 2010. White, meanwhile, has bulked up his lower body.
In another three weeks, fans will get their first chance to see how Gordon will be integrated into the mix.
“We still got work to do as a team, especially me,” Gordon said. “I’ve got a lot more work to do getting the playbook down and things like that. To see how hard everyone works, it’s pushing me to make me better. I am going to try to keep working hard and if I get the opportunity, I am going to take advantage of it.”
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