IT'S NEARING 3 A.M. in Madison, Wisconsin, and many of Melvin Gordon's teammates are lounging at home after a June night out -- splayed on couches, winding down, getting ready to call it a night. Gordon is not. To find him, you'd need to look to the front yard, where the 6-foot-1 junior has tossed a rope ladder to the ground and chosen this time, as good a time as any, to run a few agility drills. Bouncing on his toes, knees raised high, legs pumping like pistons, soaked in sweat, he's darting between each rung, an athlete's version of hopscotch. Leftrightleftright, ininoutout, leftrightleftright, ininoutout. If you didn't know better, you might think he was chasing something.
Gordon pauses, just long enough to catch his breath, and fires off a Snapchat to Kenzel Doe, a senior receiver for the Badgers: "Are you sleeping or getting better? I'm getting better."
Doe knows the routine well. "We'll all be hanging out, and Melvin will go home ... and do drills before he goes to bed," Doe says. "He's always going to do a little bit extra, something to help him get to where he's going."
Where Gordon is going -- or wants to go -- says as much about today's NFL as it does about the player himself. Entering the 2014 season, he's among the nation's premier running backs. He rushed for 1,609 yards a year ago, compiling at least 140 yards rushing in eight of his 13 games. He broke off four runs of 60 yards or more. He led the nation with 7.8 yards per carry.
He could easily have turned pro; the fourth-year junior received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board, which likely would have been good enough to make him the first running back picked. Good enough for that -- but not good enough for Gordon. And so he got to work.
This offseason, he bulked up to 216 pounds, after arriving as a freshman at 195 pounds. He's squatted 510 pounds five times this summer; last year the most he could do was 465 pounds. "And that was maybe two reps," Gordon says.
The man who hasn't lost a fumble in his 288 career rushing attempts spent hours flexing his hands in a sand bucket, strengthening his grip and his forearms. Then Gordon, Doe and junior cornerback Devin Gaulden began running the entire lower section at Camp Randall Stadium ... wearing 25-pound vests.
It was an ambitious offseason -- by design. "He's not cocky," Doe says. "But [he believes] he's going to be the best running back in the country. If you call that cocky, I guess he is."
Gordon seems like a man out to prove a point, and further proof resides on his bedroom wall, where he has taped a lineup of his collegiate running back competition: Georgia's Todd Gurley, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Miami's Duke Johnson. Gordon wants to beat them. He also wants to lift them up. "When I'm running sprints and lifting, I'm not just thinking about the guys in our room," he says. "I'm not just competing with them. I'm thinking about Gurley. I'm thinking about Yeldon, Abdullah and the new guys coming in.
"You hear a lot of things about running backs not being as important anymore. Some people in the NFL may think they don't need backs early in the draft. I want to change that."
THERE'S A WAR on running backs raging in our land, and the Paul Revere of that war is Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. The Pac-12's offensive player of the year in 2013, Carey rushed for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns. He was arguably even better in 2012, when, as a consensus All-American, he rushed for a school-record 1,929 yards and 23 TDs on 6.4 yards per run. But it was at the NFL combine in February, when asked about the trend of running backs dropping in the draft, that Carey made like the town crier.
"Why in the hell didn't you tell me this a couple of years ago that running backs are going extinct?" said Carey, half-joking but half, you know, not. "I definitely would have went to corner or something." And when Carey went undrafted until the fourth round, what was most surprising was how unsurprising it was.
In the past five drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks, compared with 11 cornerbacks and 10 wide receivers -- even six safeties. In the past two drafts, not a single running back's name was called in the first round. It wasn't until the latter half of the second round in the 2014 draft that a back was taken, when Washington's Bishop Sankey went No. 54 overall to the Tennessee Titans. And the future hardly looks brighter: ESPN's Todd McShay has only one running back going in the first round of his most recent 2015 mock draft, projecting Gurley to sneak in at No. 30 overall.
Consider, if you will, the case of Todd Gurley. Had it not been for Johnny Manziel in 2012, Gurley surely would have been the SEC newcomer everybody was talking about that season. Despite sharing backfield duties with another true freshman, Keith Marshall, Gurley ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. Last season he missed most of four games with an ankle injury but still flirted with 1,000 yards. One NFL coach called Gurley the closest thing he's seen to a "special" back the past few years.
Even so, Gurley -- like Gordon -- is a master craftsman of a trade that no longer has a market. Says Gurley: "You hear people saying that the running back position is underappreciated or going down in value. I feel like it's on us to bring it back, to be one of those backs who makes a team want to get you in the first round or the top five or top 10."
TITANS RUNNING BACKS coach Sylvester Croom has coached some of the game's best runners, including Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and Chris Johnson -- all three of whom rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. Croom, in other words, knows what a difference maker looks like at the position. So it says something that Croom's advice for today's college runners who aspire to an NFL career is: Learn to catch the ball.
"Everything is about the passing game first in the NFL," Croom says. "If you can't play well in the passing game, you're going to be downgraded."
His slightly more specific advice? Just, you know, try to be Marcus Allen. "In today's game, he would be the ideal back," Croom says. "He was the best short-yardage runner I've ever seen, but he was also a great pass receiver and great pass protector. He could line up in the slot. You could put him back there with another back as a blocker. He could play every down. That's what we're all looking for."
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who coached at Wisconsin, recruited and signed Montee Ball, James White and Gordon. And he says the draft process will reveal Gordon's gifts: "What people don't understand is that Melvin will test out of this world. He has great speed and is so athletic and powerful, such a long strider. He reminds me a bit of Eddie George. I still remember our strength coach telling me when we signed him, 'Coach, this is the biggest freak we've ever signed,' and I'd say that's going to become readily apparent to a lot of people over this next season."
But in today's NFL, is that enough? It may be awhile before we see another running back go in the top 10, Croom says: "The way I look at it is that if I'm going to put a top-10 grade on a guy at running back, I have to think in my heart of hearts that he's going to be a Hall of Famer, and those guys are rare." Consider that in the 2015 ESPN 300, only four running backs are ranked among the top 50 players nationally. In the 2006, '07 and '08 classes, eight running backs cracked the top 50 each year.
So what's a young speedster to do when he's tapped by his coach to line up behind the QB? Hope that he doesn't get used too much. According to the NFL Players Association, the average NFL running back lasts just 2.57 years in the league -- the shortest career of all position players. Running backs have only so many hits in them. That's good news then for Gordon and Gurley, who have each shared ball-carrying duties with other backs in college. Neither has been asked to carry the ball 30-plus times a game.
Even today's high schoolers are aware that running backs have the athletic life span of a fruit fly. In late June, running back Jordan Scarlett, one of the top prospects in South Florida, backed out of his commitment to Florida Atlantic. His rationale? FAU would need him to carry the team, and he was trying to get his body "ready for the NFL."
"You used to think that you'd recruit all these kids, and if they didn't win the job at running back, you could move them to corner or safety," says Croom, who spent five seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State before returning to the NFL sideline in 2009. "Now you might have to talk some of those same kids into playing running back, especially if he's in the 190-pound range and runs a 4.4 or a 4.5. They know they can go play corner, go higher in the draft and remain healthy for a long time."
IF GORDON AND GURLEY are men on the wrong side of history -- or the wrong side of the ball -- it's notable that for many young players, that side is chosen for them. At North Carolina's Tarboro High School, Gurley, for one, spent much of his time on defense until his sophomore year. "My high school was so small that pretty much everybody was going to play two positions," he says. "I was at defensive end and moved to linebacker and then started developing my speed going into my 10th-grade year. They just told me, 'We're going to put you at running back.' "
Still, neither man is afraid to run into a headwind -- and Gordon seems almost to revel in it. "I think he likes being the dark horse," says his mother, Carmen.
Which helps explain why, if you live near the UW campus and look out your window on certain early mornings, you just might see a man dragging a rope ladder into his front yard. Yet again.
Gordon has something to prove, and the only way to do that is to prove an entire league wrong.
"He likes it when people aren't talking about him," says Carmen. "He has always been a kid who loves proving people wrong."
Melvin Gordon believes he is better than the NFL thinks. And that running backs are more important than the NFL thinks. And if it takes wearing a few bare patches into his yard to prove it, that's what he'll do.
"If they like me now," Gordon says, "they're going to love me later."