Massive expectations await Melvin Gordon in his junior year at Wisconsin. The idea of a 2,000-yard campaign has been bandied about. Colleague Travis Haney has picked Gordon to have a "historic season."
Those high hopes are understandable. Gordon finished 10th in the FBS with 1,609 rushing yards last season, and he will become the Badgers' featured back this fall for the first time in his career.
But just how much will Gordon actually be featured? He has grown used to splitting time, first behind Montee Ball and James White as a redshirt freshman and then in a time-share with White last season. Many assume Wisconsin will now just feed Gordon over and over again. Yet he sees another tandem approach shaping up with him and sophomore Corey Clement, whom he calls "one of the best backs in the nation."
"If I get 30 to 35 carries a game, that means Corey is hurt, and we can't have that," Gordon said. "I like splitting the ball. It keeps us fresh throughout the season. Me and James were really fresh last year, and that helped us play so well."
Gordon has proved to be a model of efficiency. He piled up his yards last season on just 206 carries, or a little less than 16 attempts per game on average. By comparison, his friend Ameer Abdullah took 281 carries in the same amount of games at Nebraska. Gordon has 288 total rushing attempts in his three-year career, which includes an injury-shortened true freshman campaign.
Last year, Gordon didn't even lead his own team in handoffs received, as White had 15 more rushing attempts. Every other back who finished in the top 10 in rushing nationally had at least 61 more carries than Gordon; Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey ran the ball 349 times in 12 games.
Gordon's 7.8 yards per carry average last season -- and his 8.1 career mark -- is otherwordly. When someone is almost getting a first down every time he touches the ball, you'd think his team would go back to that well as much as possible. But Gordon eclipsed 20 carries in a game only once in the regular season, when he ran 22 times for 172 yards in a blowout of Northwestern.
"No question there’s a temptation to run him every time," coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com last week.
But Clement is a burgeoning talent, too, and he averaged 8.2 yards per carry in limited duty last season. Andersen plans to get both on the field in a way that he said would be similar to the White-Gordon duet.
"A lot depends on how Corey handles it and how Melvin carries the ball," Andersen said. "Melvin has been used to a 60-40 [split], or maybe 65-35. I think Melvin has positioned himself to be involved a little more than he has been. And not just carries, but in any situation I feel good with him right now."
Gordon's offseason focus on becoming a better receiver -- he had only one reception last year, as White was the pass-catching back -- should allow him to stay on the field more often. But though he had a career-high 25 carries in the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina, which Andersen said was the most physical he'd ever seen Gordon run, this doesn't look like a repeat of Ball's 2012 season. Ball had seven games of at least 25 rushing attempts and several 30-plus-carry games on his way to winning the Doak Walker Award as a senior.
"Thirty-some carries, if it happens, it happens," Gordon said. "But in today’s world, that's kind of unlikely unless you're like Ka'Deem Carey or something. When you've got another great back behind you, it's kind of hard for that to happen."
Gordon said he texted Ball this summer and wrote that he was going to break the FBS record of 39 touchdowns in a season that Ball shares with Barry Sanders. But he was just joking around because he knows how much that record means to Ball.
"I didn’t realize how tough it was to score until this previous year," he said. "I got 12 touchdowns [in 2013], and those 12 were hard to get. To get 39 is unreal. I don’t think it’s a record that really will ever be broken."
It remains to be seen whether Gordon can set any of his own records while maximizing his opportunities. The good news: There isn't a whole lot of tread on his tires.
"He hasn’t played an abnormal amount of snaps in his career," Andersen said. "It will be a good test for him to get more snaps in a game and see how he handles it."