When Ameer Abdullah weighed whether to enter the NFL draft or return to Nebraska for his senior season, he didn't do much external research on comparable players.
He looked at his own family and how all eight of his older siblings had earned their college degrees (in some cases, advanced degrees, too). He considered the free education he could complete at Nebraska. He took the realistic and refreshing position that at some point, his body wouldn't allow him to play football, and he needed to fall back on his education.
The other top FBS running backs declaring for the draft early didn't enter Abdullah's mind. There was only one outside resource Abdullah consulted, a friend who played the same position with similar success at another Big Ten school, and who had faced the same decision. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon already had announced he would return as a fourth-year junior. As Abdullah neared his decision earlier this month, he reached out often to Gordon.
"That's one person I talk to all the time about things like this," Abdullah told ESPN.com. "Melvin, he's one of my best friends. He's a good guy, and he was in a similar situation as me. He's also coming back, and I'm glad he is.
"We get to play them next year, and it's going to be a great matchup."
Abdullah and Gordon, who first met a high school all-star game in South Carolina in 2010 and have been good friends ever since, both are returning to the Big Ten for the 2014 season. A record-setting 98 underclassmen entered the 2014 NFL draft, 25 more than last year, the previous record. The list includes 20 running backs. Although a portion of the early entries either received bad advice or made bad decisions and won't be drafted, running back has long been regarded as the position to make a jump as soon as possible because of the physical toll it takes to play the position and its typically shorter career span.
There's little doubt both Gordon and Abdullah could have turned pro. Gordon led the nation in rushing for a stretch in September and finished with 1,609 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite sharing carries with James White. Abdullah led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in rushing yards with 1,690, which included 11 100-yard rushing performances in 13 games.
So why did the two say no to the draft?
"It just shows how much we care about our teams and how much we want to be the guy," Gordon said. "Ameer was the guy, but like I said before, it's about leaving a legacy. I'm sure that's what he wants to do as well. He wants to be considered one of the top backs, along with me, before he leaves, and that's a big thing, leaving something behind."
Gordon sought input from the NFL draft advisory board before announcing his decision to return, and he encouraged Abdullah to do the same. Although Abdullah didn't directly tell Gordon he planned to return before making a formal announcement, Gordon always had the sense Abdullah would be back at Nebraska.
"He's ambitious, just like I am," Abdullah said. "I feel like I have a lot more left in my ceiling that I have to reach. Melvin is the same way. He wants to come back and improve on his game, just like I do."
Pass blocking is undoubtedly the priority for Gordon during the offseason. It was a struggle for him at times last season, and even though he felt he improved, Wisconsin's coaches went with the more reliable White on passing downs.
"If you want to be an all-purpose back, you've got to get adjusted from the start," he said. "It didn't happen that quickly with me and that's why James was there. That's what I have to work on, just getting more comfortable in pass protection."
Gordon also hopes to bulk up a bit to 215 pounds after playing last season at around 205 (he's currently plateauing at 208-209). He wants to be Wisconsin's primary ball-carrier but expects to be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 67 carries as a freshman last fall -- similar numbers to Gordon's freshman campaign (62 rushes, 621 yards).
Abdullah logged 281 carries in 2013 and will again be in a featured role as a senior. Although many already consider Abdullah a team leader, he wants to enhance his vocal presence to "set the standards" for younger Huskers players.
Despite 549 career carries at Nebraska, the 5-9, 190-pound Abdullah isn't concerned about the injury risk of another year in college or the chatter from agents and others that running backs often slide in the draft if they return to school.
"It's all about your running style, really," he said. "A lot of guys run a certain way where they're vulnerable to getting hit directly. Other guys maneuver themselves so they won't take direct shots. You look at a guy like Barry Sanders. He was great at that. He never took that direct shot.
"I've always tried to change my ways or look at different technique schemes to prolong my career."
His Nebraska career will culminate with another run at an elusive league title. To do so, Abdullah and his teammates likely will have to get past Gordon and the Badgers on Nov. 15 in Madison, Wis.
Nebraska's last appearance at Camp Randall Stadium, its first league game in the Big Ten, did not go well.
"That's definitely one I circled," Gordon said. "I'm excited for it. I do compete with Ameer a lot. After every game, I'm checking to see what he got. I'm pretty sure he's doing the same thing. He definitely pushes me, and I'll push him to be great as well."
The Big Ten's top two runners are back for 2014, setting up an exciting race for the rushing title.
"The work starts now," Abdullah said, "so he better be working."