On Thursday night, the Big Ten’s top three running backs will throw on their best suits and stroll down the red carpet for the Home Depot College Football Awards.
There, they’ll sit patiently and await a single line for the entire night: “I am proud to announce the recipient of the 2014 Doak Walker Award ...” No matter who wins -- Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah or Tevin Coleman -- this trio has already made history. Never before have the finalists for the award all come from the same conference.
And, truthfully, no one really expected these three to be standing on this stage back in high school.
These three weren’t blue-chip, can’t-miss prospects from the ESPN 300. These were the blue-collar players, the underdogs who overcame countless doubts and questions to establish themselves among the nation’s elite. One scouting service wrote that Gordon would have to switch positions to find success. Some scouts believed Indiana’s Coleman was better-suited for defense. And a popular opinion on Abdullah was that he’d never amount to more than a change-of-pace back.
But this trio either ignored those doubts or used them as fuel. It became a special group. And, like any group of players, their stories had to start somewhere.
Here’s a look at those beginnings:
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Even Melvin Gordon never dreamed this big.
Back in Bradford (Wis.) High School, where students painted their faces red every Friday night, Gordon thought about the future like any other student-athlete. He daydreamed about big crowds and bigger stadiums, about starts and touchdowns. But 2,000-yard seasons? Heisman campaigns? National interviews?
“I always had high expectations for myself, and I always expected to be good,” Gordon said recently. “But never did I think it would be this crazy and I would be playing this well.”
As a high school underclassman, it was difficult to look at Gordon and think “Heisman.” He stood at 150 pounds; he didn’t even make the varsity squad until his junior season. But high school coach Jed Kennedy told all his assistants that Gordon wouldn’t have to pay college tuition -- it was just a matter of whether that would be at the FBS or FCS level.
And, when he hit a growth spurt and showed up as a 175-pound junior, all bets were off.
“The thing that really started sticking out was the weight room,” Kennedy said. “We’d get done with our team workouts that last an hour and 15 minutes, and him and a group of seniors would work another 45 minutes. He was just a junior, but he was the first one in and the last one out. He was the leader.”
But not every college coach or scouting service was sold. ESPN questioned the level of competition in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place better known for its Interstate 94 cheese shop. A Rivals recruiting analyst wrote, “I believe he will have to make a major position change in order to become a starter for a major BCS level school.” And, outside of Tennessee, the SEC ignored the player with the long strides and video game-esque stats altogether. (Junior: 98 carries, 1,061 yards; Senior: 158 carries, 2,009 yards, 38 TDs.)
There was plenty of interest -- especially among Big Ten schools -- but most recruiting services still didn’t consider him elite. ESPN ranked him as No. the 39 running back in the country (and said he was built like a receiver), Rivals projected him at No. 24 (and said he could project as a safety or linebacker), and Scout said No. 38.
Kennedy just didn’t understand it. They traveled to Alabama for a camp, and the staff there didn’t even pull him aside. As a junior, coming off a knee injury, he carried the ball 16 times in one game and wound up with 265 yards -- during a muddy contest the local paper coined “The Swamp.” But universities from the South seemed allergic to the cold.
“I just think a lot of times they look at it like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to go to Wisconsin to get a running back because we got six or seven kids down here,’” Kennedy said. “They come up here for linemen, but they don’t look at the skill kids. I don’t know why.”
Those teams that failed to jump on Gordon are likely regretting it now. In Madison, he played two hours away from his old high school field in Kenosha -- but he still continued to post those same crazy numbers. As a high school junior, he averaged 16.5 yards a carry in a memorable game against Franklin. As a college redshirt junior, he averaged 19.5 yards a carry against Bowling Green and 16.3 yards a carry against Nebraska.
Kennedy stood on the sideline years ago when small, high school crowds chanted Gordon’s name. And he sat in Camp Randall earlier this season for Gordon’s 408-yard performance, when Kennedy’s hair stood on end once the crowd took to chanting “MEL-VIN GOR-DON!”
Gordon has come full-circle in the football world. And, even if he never dreamed this big, Kennedy swears none of this is surprising.
“Honestly, nothing surprises me with this kid,” he said. “He’s got unbelievable God-given talent, and he has an unbelievable work ethic. And when you combine that, well, that’s one hell of a combination.”
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah
Dickey Wright can still remember sitting in the bleachers in the fall of 2006, watching as a small running back -- about a head shorter than his teammates -- weaved through defenders, bounced to the outside, and outran everyone to the end zone.
The high school coach at Homewood (Ala.) had just one thought: “I hope he grows.”
That running back, Ameer Abdullah, was never the most physically-imposing football player. Even as he grew older, often roaming the Homewood halls in blue-and-red shorts and a T-shirt, he didn’t look the part of a future Power 5 player. He looked more like a track athlete; his brothers and sisters even called him Peewee.
“He wasn’t going to give you that ‘Wow’ effect,” Wright said. “But once he got out in the practice field, you could tell he had the ability. Some kids walk out on that field and have it; some don’t. Once he put the pads on, you could tell he was a different-type kid than what you would see walking through the halls.”
The issue was convincing everyone else. He rushed for 1,045 yards as a junior for a respectable 4.95 yards a carry and fared well at a handful of camps, but a lot of schools thought he’d fare better at cornerback. Scholarships came, a few even from the SEC, but Abdullah wasn’t satisfied.
He wanted to play offense.
The scouting services weren’t at all kind to Abdullah. None rated him above three stars, and ESPN offered him just a two-star evaluation. The evaluation said, “Durability is a concern when projecting for the college level. Not a full-time back.” Most schools shared ESPN’s concern. He didn’t look like an every-down back, he wasn’t built like an every-down back so, surely, he wouldn’t be an every-down back.
Abdullah wouldn’t be underestimated for much longer. His numbers, his speed and his cutting ability couldn’t be ignored. As a senior, he more than doubled his average -- from 4.95 yards a carry to 11.4. He rushed for 1,795 yards and 25 touchdowns. Size issues or not, he was worth the risk.
He committed to Nebraska a month before signing day. And Wright still remembers calling up his close friend, Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning, to tell him just what they were getting.
“I just told Mark, ‘He’s going to be a diamond in the rough for you all. He’s going to do some great things for you all,’” Wright said. “I think size was probably a concern at first. But people never got to see he was a tremendous worker in the weight room.
“They never got to see the real Ameer Abdullah.”
Indiana's Tevin Coleman
Brian McDonough didn’t need to consult scouts or colleagues about his quiet high school freshman who never cursed. He knew Tevin Coleman was destined for greatness.
He just assumed it would be at cornerback. So did a lot of college coaches.
During Coleman’s freshman season, when he threw on his shoulder pads for the Oak Hill (Ill.) sophomore team, Coleman primarily played running back -- but shined on defense. Although the coaches usually only plugged him in defensively near the end of games, when Hail Marys were inevitable and fatigue wasn’t an issue, McDonough swears that Coleman came down with 11 interceptions that season. And competed in maybe 16 -- yes, 16 -- total defensive plays.
“Yeah, interceptions on all but five plays. He was a great running back, don’t get me wrong,” McDonough said. “But he was incredible as a defensive back. We’d put him in and he’d just go get the ball wherever it was. He was phenomenal; he was unbelievable.”
McDonough can remember staring in the sky when a quarterback would hurl a ball toward the left hash, and Coleman would sprint from the right like a hawk flying to its prey. Time after time, he’d come away with the turnover. But in the game of high school football, where the running game is king, Coleman was more valuable on the varsity offense. So he played both ways in the big games -- but mostly wingback in the unorthodox offense, similar to Navy’s triple option.
That speed and athleticism is what made him a can’t-miss prospect in the eyes of many college coaches, despite his three-star ratings by the media. (He boasted more than a dozen offers, although none came from the SEC.) But that, and his scheme, also created another problem: Where did he belong?
He carried the ball just 83 times as a senior -- for a total of 949 yards -- and finished with 16 catches for 345 yards. He also had 44 tackles and two picks in limited defensive action. ESPN listed him as a receiver, numerous schools preferred him on defense, and Coleman wanted to be a tailback.
“A lot of the big schools wanted him at defensive back,” McDonough said. “But he just played better and better, and people realized he wanted to play running back. So some schools changed their tunes.”
Michigan State and Oklahoma both wanted Coleman, but the Spartans wouldn’t commit to the running back part of it. The Indiana Hoosiers were just fine with it, though -- and McDonough assumed Coleman could always play defense if running back didn’t pan out.
Turns out that was never an issue.
“I knew he had the explosiveness, I knew he had the big runs, but I just didn’t think he’d be an every-down back,” McDonough acknowledged. “I thought he’d be an all-pro defensive back.”