July 28, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
CHICAGO -- Ron Dayne handed the baton to Michael Bennett who handed it to Anthony Davis who handed it to Brian Calhoun who handed it to P.J. Hill who handed it to John Clay who handed it to Montee Ball who handed it to James White who handed it to …
“It’s my time now to make some plays for my team,” Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon said here Monday at the Big Ten Media Days. “It was James’ team (last year) and now I get to lead these guys, I get to show that I can do it without Montee or James.”
Gordon has become a student of history; the tailback history at Wisconsin.
“And you don’t want to be the guy to drop the ball,” he said. “Every running back that has been through here has had an outstanding career. It’s unbelievable how they’ve recruited, I don’t know how they do it, how they’ve brought in so many great backs.
“But every year Wisconsin finds someone.”
Gordon, a junior from Kenosha, Wisconsin, has found himself on numerous watch lists (Maxwell, Doak Walker, Walter Camp) and short lists (of the top running backs in the conference and country). But he has been trying to keep everything in perspective by stiff-arming the hype.
“It’s whatever you want it to be,” he said of the regional and national exposure that he has been attracting. “I knew it would be that way when I decided to come back (for his junior year). But I can’t focus on it; there’s really no time for that.
“If you stop working hard and you think you’ve got it made, that’s when you get passed up by other guys -- when you’re feeding into all of that noise. I’m pushing that to the side and worrying about me and my teammates and what we need to do to get better.”
Five of the six teams in the Big Ten West Division brought their tailback to Chicago. Gordon was joined by Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota’s David Cobb, Purdue’s Raheem Mostert and Iowa’s Mark Weisman.
“It’s a good feeling, I can’t lie,” Gordon said of being featured among the conference’s elite players. “It feels good to see that your hard work is actually paying off. But, to be honest, there are some other guys who should be in the spotlight, too.”
Gordon put UW wide receiver and kick return specialist Kenzel Doe in that category. “Being that he’s a senior and knowing the hard work that he has put in,” Gordon said, “I definitely feel like he should be where I’m at right now and I should be at home.”
But it doesn’t work that way. Gordon is a difference-maker. And he wants to be. “I’m really hard on myself,” he said of his expectations. “I’m my toughest critic. I don’t really care much about expectations from other people. I don’t worry about pressure too much.”
He picked that up from Ball while he was under the Heisman microscope. “I remember talking to Montee about it and I asked him, ‘How did you deal with it,’” Gordon related. “He just said, ‘Ignore it all.’ He didn’t read his clippings; he didn’t read anything.
“Montee knew how to handle the media and the pressure when you’re in the spotlight. As a Wisconsin running back, no matter who you are, the spotlight is going to be there. But the knowledge that has been passed on by these guys is remarkable.’
“If you stop working hard and you think you’ve got it made, that’s when you get passed up by other guys,” Gordon said.
“I’m pushing that to the side and worrying about me and my teammates and what we need to do to get better.”
White instructed him, “Be there for your teammates, be there for the younger guys.”
To this end, Gordon has been fine-tuning his leadership skills. “I lead by example, I lead with my actions,” he said. “That has always been my style of leadership. To break out of that role and be more vocal has made me a better player.”
And it has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“After a pretty tough run a couple of weeks ago,” said UW offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, “most guys were beat and tired and a couple were throwing up at the end. I saw Melvin grab some guys and ask, ‘Do you want to get some extra running in?’
“And they started doing some stadium steps after the run. You saw Melvin up there, he was the first guy, winning his rep, and, then, he was cheering the other guys on. He’s really coming into his own as the exceptional player that he is.”
Defensive lineman Warren Herring recounted how Gordon got into the defensive huddle and “challenged everybody to get better this summer.”
He’s also practicing what he preaching. “I want to be a stronger, more powerful runner,” Gordon said. “I want to start running people over.”
The nice thing is that he won’t have to do it alone; multiple tailbacks are another Wisconsin tradition. Clay and White. White and Ball. White and Gordon. Gordon and Corey Clement. “It’s me and Corey,” Gordon said, “and our time to lead the team to greatness.”
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen has to find a way to keep them both productive.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Andersen said. “Those two young men last year, James and Melvin, handled that so unselfishly. Does that happen again? I sure hope so. But we need to make sure Melvin is getting his touches, yet to say we’re going to hand the ball to Melvin 30 times a game would be a mistake. That’s not smart.
“There’s a balance there; it comes with communication. Corey is expected to be a very good player and come in and bring some things to the offense. The challenge to me is finding a third back. Is it Taiwan (Deal)? Can Taiwan come in and do what Corey did a year ago? Because you have to have three. Is it going to be (Derek) Watt? Who’s the third back?”
Andersen would like find that answer before the season opener against LSU.
Gordon will be looking for other answers.
“We’ve been known to come up short in big games,” Gordon said. “That’s been the story of Wisconsin for the past few years. To go out and play tough and play a physical LSU team would be great -- to come up short is just not good enough.
“We need to go out there and win that game and I know they’re saying the same thing. It will be a crazy atmosphere. I’m sitting in bed at night and I’m thinking about it because I know it’s going to be crazy.
“If you know anything about football, you know the first game is always high-energy. Guys are ready to roll, guys are ready to play. It will definitely be a show come Aug. 30.”