Wisconsin Badgers beat writer Jesse Temple will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Badgers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find every report here.
Note: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Wisconsin will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered. The list does not include incoming freshmen because their potential impact is unknown at this time.
No. 1 — Melvin Gordon, running back
Why he’s No. 1
What, like a Heisman Trophy candidate wouldn’t be No. 1 on this list? Without question, Gordon is the single most important player to the Badgers’ success this season. Most NFL draft analysts list him as one of the top two running backs in the 2015 draft, and he’s expected to prove the pundits right by continuing to dominate the college game on the ground.
Gordon — a preseason first-team All-America pick — has a chance to be one of the best tailbacks to come through Wisconsin in the last two decades with a great year, and that’s saying something considering all the talent to come through Madison. It’s pretty astounding to consider that Gordon is averaging 8.1 yards per carry during his college career. The guy is as explosive as any tailback in years, and he showed he could handle a significant workload last season. In 2013, he carried 206 times for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns. Now that James White is with the New England Patriots, Gordon will be the No. 1 option, sharing carries with No. 2 tailback Corey Clement.
With great success comes great expectations, and no Wisconsin player will have more expectations heaped on him than Gordon. What is reasonable to expect? First-team All-America honors? Heisman Trophy finalist? Both seem like viable options, which means Gordon should be perhaps the best running back in the country across college football this season.
Statistics-wise, it’s hard to predict where Gordon could wind up for a couple of reasons. First, Wisconsin has a favorable Big Ten schedule, and there may be games in which the score gets out of hand early. If that’s the case, Gordon could be watching from the sideline while resting up for the next game. Additionally, Gordon likely will split carries close to 50-50 with Clement, which takes away big numbers from any single player. While that’s likely best for both players in the long run, it does nothing for the "wow" factor of having huge yardage and touchdown numbers.
Still, it’s reasonable to use last season’s numbers as a baseline for 2014 expectations for Gordon. He carried 15 fewer times than White and still was the team’s leading rusher. If Gordon rushes for somewhere north of 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns, you’d have to consider that a successful season. If he can approach anywhere near 2,000 yards, then we’re talking Heisman Trophy finalist potential. And in June, anything seems possible for Gordon.
"I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman," Gordon said in April. "People talk about that. I don’t really feel like that’s important. The goal right now is really a national championship. Wisconsin has never had one before. That’s my goal and that’s our team goal."
There are areas in which Gordon hopes to improve, particularly in pass protection and pass catching out of the backfield. White was the go-to receiving threat last season, which left Gordon with few opportunities. In fact, Gordon caught just one pass for 10 yards. But he’ll have an opportunity to do much more this season, which will further endear him to NFL scouts.
"I didn’t get to pass protect that much," Gordon said. "I definitely didn’t get to catch screens that much. I built in some confidence with the coaches in bowl prep, and we were actually going to do a lot of screens with me in them, but we were running the ball so well, so there was no need for it. That’s definitely what I’m going to work on. I feel like that will help me and show people that I am one of the top guys."
What would they do without him?
Corey Clement is plenty talented, and he’d probably be fine handling close to 300 carries, if necessary. But how much better is Wisconsin with Gordon? Well, a lot. Gordon’s decision to return for the 2014 season and bypass the NFL draft means Wisconsin has legitimate hopes to win a Big Ten title.
"Huge is probably not a big enough word," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said of what Gordon’s return meant. "He’s such a tremendous player, which we all know. But what a lot of people don’t know about Melvin is how good of a kid he is. When a kid walks in your office and says, ‘Coach, it’s important for me to come back because I want to be the featured tailback on a team that has an opportunity to do some special things,’ that’s not being selfish in my mind. That’s basically stating the facts of what he wants to be.
"He’s a huge part of this football team as a leader and obviously a huge part when he has the ball in his hands. The challenge for us is to make sure we get the ball in his hands in some unique ways to let him be special, which he is."
With Gordon and Clement in the backfield, Wisconsin could produce one of the great single seasons for a tailback duo in college football history. It worked last year with White and Gordon, and there’s every reason to believe it will work again.