Dangerous duo: Badgers boast talented RB tandem in Gordon, Clement

Both Melvin Gordon (left) and Corey Clement have said recently that they want to develop as all-around running backs, with an ability to pass protect, line up at receiver or catch passes out of the backfield on screens.

Mary Langenfeld/Trevor Ruszkowski

MADISON, Wis. — Statistics will show Wisconsin running backs Melvin Gordon and James White put together the best 1-2 rushing combination by teammates in the history of Division I college football last season. The duo did, after all, rush for 3,053 yards to set a single-season FBS record and become the first teammates to each run for at least 1,400 yards.

Those numbers might sound like a tall task to replicate. But if there’s one thing fans should have realized by now, it’s that being the best one year has done little to deter Badgers tailbacks from somehow becoming even better the next year. Remember that Gordon and White’s spectacular seasons came a year after Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball left for the NFL.

And so, those are among the goals Gordon and new running mate Corey Clement seek to undertake in 2014. As spring football practices come to a close, they have their sights set on being the very best tandem in college football — something that seems entirely plausible given what we know about each player.

"We have a lot of weight on our shoulders," Clement said. "We know what Wisconsin actually represents. It’s Running Back U. So we just have to show that each week we come out. I don’t really see anybody else hopefully being a competition to us in the regular season. Because I believe this offseason we will put in a lot of work. Nobody should really be able to touch us this year."

Gordon, a redshirt junior, will begin the season as a viable threat to win the Heisman Trophy. Last season, he rushed for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. Among qualifying FBS running backs, only three averaged more yards per rush than Gordon.

In December, Gordon toyed with the idea of leaving college early to put his name into the NFL Draft. He very likely would have been one of the first running backs taken, but he instead chose to return for what will presumably be his final year of college.

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The decision has not come without its share of second thoughts, though Gordon said he was fully committed to producing another great season.

"I watch NFL Network pretty much every day," Gordon said. "You think about it a little bit, especially when the draft is a big thing right now. You can’t help but think about it a little bit. I know when this offseason comes and spring ball is over and it’s time to go to work, I’m going to clear my head and just work."

How important was Gordon’s decision to return for the good of Wisconsin’s football team?

"Huge is probably not a big enough word," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "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."

Clement, meanwhile, came to Wisconsin as one of the most highly decorated high school tailbacks the Badgers ever had. In his freshman season, he didn’t disappoint, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He finished the year with 547 yards rushing and seven touchdowns as the team’s third-string running back.

"I think my biggest thing was just being patient," Clement said. "I knew I was going to have mop-up duty or whatever. I tried to be naive to it, just be like I want to try to work hard this offseason and try to possibly get in the mix early in the game. But it’s hard with James and Melvin still playing in front of you. So I was just being patient."

Badgers in the Draft

Now, it is Clement’s turn to share carries in the backfield.

Both Gordon and Clement said they wanted to develop as all-around running backs, with an ability to pass protect, line up at receiver or catch passes out of the backfield on screens. Last year, White was the primary receiver out of the backfield, catching 39 passes for 300 yards with two touchdowns. Gordon and Clement combined for two catches for 19 yards.

"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."

Added Clement: "I have hands. I’ll say that. I have hands. I would like to capitalize on my pass protection and my speed as well. The game is only going to get faster. In this day and age, I want to get faster, have the next gear just to break away, just to become a speedy threat. I’m a downhill threat, but I also want to be a speedy back as well."

Neither player will be tackled during the team’s spring game, which takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday inside Camp Randall Stadium. They are simply too valuable to the team to risk injury with a potentially record-breaking season on the horizon.

"We just want to be considered as one of the top groups in the nation," Gordon said. "We know there’s a lot of guys out there working. We want to be considered one of the top, if not the best."

With so much talent between Gordon and Clement, it’s hard to argue with such a goal.

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