MADISON, Wis. — At most college football programs, Melvin Gordon would be the featured running back and the toast of the town. At Wisconsin, he is simply third on the tailback totem pole, waiting for the day when he can push his way to the top.
But that set of circumstances hasn’t deterred Gordon from preparing each week as though he might actually be the No. 1 guy each Saturday — a smart move considering the fragility of the position.
On Saturday, Gordon finally experienced a taste of the good life. When star running back Montee Ball suffered a head injury during the second quarter against UTEP, Gordon saw his first meaningful game action of the season.
Eight carries, 112 yards and one touchdown later, he had demonstrated why so many people are high on his talents, Ball included.
“I think he did a great job,” Ball said. “We all know what he’s capable of doing. He just had to go out and show it, and I think he did.”
Gordon, a redshirt freshman, possesses raw strength, power and speed that makes it difficult to keep him off the field. At least, it would if Ball wasn’t a returning Heisman Trophy finalist and backup James White wasn’t a one-time 1,000-yard rusher himself.
The big question all season has been how the team’s coaches would use Gordon. With only so many carries to go around in the backfield, Gordon ultimately became the odd man out. That meant he spent the first few games solely on kickoff return duty. But he rarely had the opportunity to return any kicks because they landed so deep in the end zone.
In the team’s third game of the season two weeks ago, he carried twice for 18 yards against Utah State — his first carries of the season.
“I think he was a little discouraged because he carried the ball twice and played 15 snaps,” Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. “But if you do your job every play, everybody can have success, whether you’re getting the ball or not. That’s what we’ve been trying to preach week by week.”
It hasn’t been the easiest transition for a guy who rushed for 2,009 yards as a high school senior at Kenosha Bradford. But Gordon is learning the value of patience from two of the best in the Big Ten, and he was rewarded on Saturday.
“I tried to stay motivated,” Gordon said. “Montee and James kept talking to me, telling me they’re going to use all three of us. I kept listening to those guys, kept working hard and it paid off.”
Ball said he is likely to return this week for Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska. If that occurs, Gordon’s touches are sure to plummet once again. Gordon still remains listed as the team’s starter on kick returns, and he is fully capable of breaking a big play against the Cornhuskers.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema said he intends to limit Gordon this season some in the running game because he doesn’t want to “put too much on his plate” with his special teams duties. Still, Gordon has done enough to give Bielema confidence that he can use him in the backfield if necessary.
“Melvin’s a guy that has shown that he can play at this level,” Bielema said. “He’s very smooth in the way he runs.”
Gordon said he had learned to become a mentally stronger running back, pushing through sore legs and minor injuries that accrue over the course of a season. On the field, he has been used primarily outside the tackles thus far, but he makes it clear that he can barrel through the middle in classic Wisconsin style if given the opportunity.
“I didn’t get that many runs up the middle, but in due time I will,” Gordon said. “Anybody thinks otherwise, I’ll show them.”
For the time being, Gordon is simply happy to be on the field in any capacity, although he certainly wasn’t upset to find himself in a bigger role last week against UTEP.
“When I got in there, my adrenaline started rushing,” Gordon said. “It felt good. I walked off the sideline, I told Montee, I’m like, ‘Man I’m feeling this. I like this.’ It was fun, and I’m looking forward to getting more.”
Gordon may have to wait his turn longer than he wants, but there is no question his turn will come.