MADISON, Wis. -- Most Wisconsin players had disappeared into the northeast tunnel of Camp Randall Stadium, leaving behind another spring workout. But Melvin Gordon remained, running routes and catching passes from walk-on quarterback Thad Armstrong.
It's the type of image college football fans covet but can't always count on: their team's best player being the last to leave the practice field. In this way, Wisconsin fans are spoiled with their recent running backs. Montee Ball set records on fall Saturdays, but he was even better, teammates and coaches say, during practices. James White forged a 4,015-yard, 48-touchdown Badgers career on production, versatility and unselfishness. Those qualities showed up every time he practiced.
Now comes Gordon, the flashiest of the recent Badgers backs. Ball mass-produced touchdowns; Gordon mass-produces highlight-reel runs. Last season he led the FBS in runs of 60 yards or longer (4) and 70 yards or longer (3), while ranking in the top five for rushes of 30 yards or longer (9) and 40 yards or longer (6).
But on this day, as afternoon spills into evening, Gordon works on catching passes. He recorded only one reception in 2013 and has just three in his career.
"I always try to do a little something after practice," Gordon told ESPN.com. "People ask me what specific thing I'm working on, what one thing, but as a back, you have to work on everything, feel like everything is your weakness and make it a strength."
There is a next level for Gordon. He sees it. If there wasn't, he would have gone to the next level. Instead, he's back at Wisconsin, hoping to take the program to the next level.
Gordon finalized his decision in December before receiving a grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He was projected as a second-round pick and could have climbed higher with a strong pre-draft showing.
"It was very clear what Melvin wanted to do," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He wanted to come back. He never seemed one bit distracted, nor has he seemed one bit distracted since that time. If you ask Melvin right now, it's clear-cut for him: He wants to be in a position to help the team reach a high level of elite football, and be the featured tailback.
"That is his goal."
Gordon specified his objective last week on a conference call with reporters.
"I want to get our team to the playoff," he said. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship.
"Wisconsin's never had one before, so that's my goal and that's our team goal."
Gordon undoubtedly will enter the Heisman picture if he builds upon a sophomore season that included 1,609 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. He led the nation and set a team record in yards per rush (7.81). With a career average of 8.1 yards per rush, he needs just 12 attempts to set the Big Ten record held by former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter (7.27 YPR).
The big runs should come, but Gordon wants to be a pass-catching back, a role White held last season (39 receptions). Gordon also knows he must improve his pass-blocking. The spring helped him in these areas, as Andersen held Gordon out of contact this spring and limited his ball-carrying reps, taking no chances with Wisconsin's best weapon or his talented backup, Corey Clement.
"Melvin plays so well with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "This spring, he's had great opportunities playing without the ball, and has made the most of those opportunities."
The reduced role posed a challenge at times. Wide receiver Kenzel Doe, one of Gordon's best friends, said Gordon often told him, "Man, I know they don't want me to get the reps, but I want to be out there so bad."
Gordon maximized the reps he received during practice and stayed after to work more.
"Montee always told me, 'Practice is harder than games,'" Gordon said. "Everything you do in practice, you get to the game, you’ll be in the same situation, and you'll be able to make that cut. You practice how you play. I believe in that."
Gordon has known he would be back at Wisconsin for four months. Three of those months have featured incessant NFL draft coverage, from the scouting combine to pro days to individual workouts to daily rumors. A later draft means three more weeks of chatter.
You wouldn't blame a player who easily could be part of the process for completely tuning it out. But Gordon watches "all of it." He loves the NFL Network as much as the next draftnik.
"When they're talking about this running back or that one, you can't help but think about it," Gordon said of his potential pro path. "It's human nature. But you can't dwell on it too much. When you give your commitment, that's what it is. You can't go back, even if you wanted to."
Andersen doesn't undersell what Gordon's return means. "Huge," he said, "is probably not a big enough word." Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver after losing Jared Abbrederis and remains unsettled at quarterback coming out of the spring.
No matter who lines up under center, the unit will lean on Gordon and Clement, who Andersen calls Wisconsin's two best offensive players. At times, they'll play together. Other times, they'll spell one another. Gordon and White formed the most productive single-season rushing tandem in NCAA history last fall (3,053 yards), and hopes are high that Clement complements Gordon just as well, if not better.
But Gordon returned to be the lead ball carrier, to be more involved in the pass game, to be a complete player and a better leader. He'll reach the next level soon enough.
He wants to get Wisconsin there first.
"His mentality is, 'I came back for a reason,'" Doe said. "He has that eagerness to win, so he's going to do whatever he has to do."