It took former University of Wisconsin running back Montee Ball nearly half of his college career to figure it out.
Ball was a third-string tailback who didn’t make it off the bench for a key game against top-ranked Ohio State midway through his sophomore season.
But over his final two years with the Badgers, Ball became one of the best all-around backs in school history, winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back as a senior last season.
Now comes Melvin Gordon, who might have even more overall talent than Ball — something Ball acknowledged on multiple occasions.
“I told him that two or three months ago,” Ball said prior to the Rose Bowl last season. “I’ll be quick to say, he has all of the abilities to be a great running back — way better than me.”
Gordon, a third-year sophomore from Kenosha Bradford, flashed his potential at times last season, especially in the Big Ten Conference title game when he rushed for 216 yards on only nine carries — an average of 24 yards per carry — in the 70-31 win over Nebraska.
“It’s just like anything else, when you’re a freshman or sophomore that sense of urgency might not be quite there as when you’re a junior and senior,” running backs coach Thomas Hammock said after a recent practice.
“The biggest thing I try to tell him is, ‘Why wait?’ Take advantage of the opportunity now and be a leader.”
Although Gordon has been slowed recently by a minor ankle sprain, he is taking the advice to heart. Watching Ball for two seasons has given Gordon an appreciation of the work involved from year to year to get where he wants to be.
“He set an example of how to work and how to get to the next level,” Gordon said of Ball. “It’s just us coming out here every day and trying to do what he did, if not better.”
One of the things the speedy Gordon (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) is focusing on this spring is running with a lower pad level since he tends to have an upright running style.
“As a player, I always played high and pad level has always been a problem for me, so just being more explosive and more physical,” he said.
That’s important because Gordon got most of his yardage last season running outside on speed sweeps after lining up in the slot. He rushed for 621 yards, averaging 10 yards a carry. He needs to prove he can pick up the tough yards inside, too.
“When you’re running inside, sometimes you have to change your pad level to get that extra yard,” Hammock said. “On third-and-1, you need to get that yard to get a first down. A lot of times that’s based on pad level and determination. Those are certainly things we’re working on, trying to win situations.”
Gordon did that on several long runs in the title game against Nebraska, beating defenders who had clean shots at him behind the line of scrimmage.
“Any time you’re running on the perimeter, you have fewer people to maneuver through,” Hammock said. “But he did a great job winning one-on-one matchups.”
Gordon, who likely will split time this season with senior James White, is eager to show what he can do at tailback after getting most of his work last season in the slot.
“Playing the end-around position was good, because it helped the team and I knew my role,” he said.
“But I came here to play running back, I didn’t come here to play slot. I’m really excited to get back there and do what I came here to do.”
Gordon has made considerable strides since last spring in his grasp of the offense and practice habits.
“He has really got a better understanding of the offense, his job responsibilities, what the expectations are,” Hammock said.
“He’s gotten better with his practice habits. He can continue to get better, but he certainly has learned from Montee and James.”
It was a noticeable change in Gordon’s practice habits that spurred his late-season success.
“Just to practice hard, that was really big for me,” he said. “You kind of get discouraged at times when you’ve got Montee and James in front of you. You practice hard and you don’t see anything good come out of it.
“You’ve got to sit back and wait your turn. It’s a little difficult. After a while, I just kind of said, ‘Forget it. It’ll be me soon, I just have to prep myself and get my mind right.’ I started practicing hard and it started paying off.”
Gordon will still have to fight for playing time. In addition to White, junior Jeffrey Lewis is improving and two more players will enter the fray in preseason camp when redshirt freshman Vonte Jackson is expected to return from a second ACL surgery and freshman Corey Clement arrives.
“A lot of it comes down to determination or want-to, wanting to be the best,” Hammock said. “You have to find that as a player. Each player is different.
“You look at Montee, it took him a while. When he found it, then the rest was history. I’m hoping James, Melvin, Jeff, Corey, Vonte, I hope those guys find it sooner, rather than later. The sooner they find it, the better players they will be.”
Tom Mulhern is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madsion.