MADISON, Wis. — The competitor inside Melvin Gordon truly wanted to leave spring practices as Wisconsin’s starting running back. The realist in Gordon understood that a sprained ankle, coupled with an excellent spring from teammate James White, meant attaining such a goal was unlikely.
Still, Gordon couldn’t help but feel as though he left his best performances somewhere in the locker room.
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“That’s by nature to be a little disappointed with yourself when you don’t do what you expect to do,” Gordon said following Saturday’s spring game. “I understand how the game goes. Injuries are the beast of the game, so it’s fine. I can’t blame that. James had a really good spring. He did his thing. This fall, I’ve got to come out and compete hard for that spot.”
Gordon did not perform badly by any means during the Badgers’ spring game. He carried the ball 17 times for 74 yards with a touchdown — good for 4.4 yards per carry. He also broke off a 30-yard run and scored from 11 yards out.
But it is clear Gordon holds himself to a higher standard — one set by his predecessor, Montee Ball, who said on numerous occasions last season he thought Gordon could be an even better player than he was. That’s high praise coming from a player who holds the all-time FBS touchdown record and was a Heisman Trophy finalist and a Doak Walker Award winner.
“I just love making explosive plays,” Gordon said. “I’ve always been confident in making plays like that since I’ve come in. I just didn’t make as many as I wanted to today. Which is on me. We’ll get better as times goes on.”
Despite Gordon’s disappointment, Badgers coach Gary Andersen seemed quite pleased with his performance. Andersen admitted the ankle tweak slowed down Gordon physically throughout spring practices.
“But it didn’t slow him down mentally, which really was impressive to me because the day he came back he was in the offense and knew the offense,” Andersen said. “There weren’t missed assignments, which is a credit to him and his ability to prepare while he’s going through an injury. Once he got back, the last three practices, he’s really gained some momentum.
“He looks fast. He looks quick. And that carried on today. He ran with a good pad level today, too. There was some suddenness to him. He got out and made some people miss. It was a pretty complete game out of him.”
Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 203-pound redshirt sophomore, said the pain in his ankle made it difficult for him to cut the way he wanted every day during practice. He said it was frustrating because he is a player who relies on speed, but he felt compelled to “suck it up” and play during the spring game, particularly because White was held out to avoid injury.
If anyone should know one spring game doesn’t determine a player’s worth, it’s Gordon. During last year’s spring game, with Ball and White watching from the sideline, Gordon carried the ball 30 times for 159 yards and scored a touchdown and clearly was the star of the show. Yet he averaged just 4.4 carries per game once the season started because Ball and White took the rest of the handoffs. For the season, he carried 62 times for 621 yards and three touchdowns.
Gordon is by no means guaranteed anything this season, but he has put himself in a good position. In addition to White, junior Jeff Lewis will be back in the fall. Redshirt freshman Vonte Jackson should be fully recovered from a torn ACL, and freshman Corey Clement will arrive after setting several South New Jersey high school records.
But it is Gordon who has the most in-game experience among the rest of the pack. He demonstrated his capabilities during Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory in the Big Ten championship against Nebraska, when he produced his breakout game with 216 yards rushing and a touchdown on just nine carries. Most of those runs came on various sweep plays with Gordon lined up on the outside and coming across the middle.
This season, Gordon will happily take his place in the backfield, securing handoffs the more traditional way. And regardless of whether Gordon earns carries on the first series or the second series next season, he’ll certainly be a bigger component in the offense with Ball gone to graduation.
Now, it’s up to Gordon to live up to his lofty expectations.
“They’ve got James as the starter right now,” Gordon said. “I still want to compete. That job is still open. I think he had a really good spring. I got hindered a little bit, so I don’t feel like I did what I was capable of doing this spring. I’ll have to come out this fall and I’ve got a lot to prove.”