The Wisconsin Badgers are a running football team. They’ve been that way since Barry Alvarez‘s arrival as head coach almost 25 years ago, and it has remained that way through Alvarez’s time as Badgers head coach, through Bret Bielema‘s time as coach and into the brand new Gary Andersen era in Madison.
With such a need for the running attack to be successful comes the need to get great running backs. Currently, the Badgers just lost one with the graduation of Montee Ball. However, they have always been good at stockpiling their roster with running backs through the years. This doesn’t always mean that a Ball or Ron Dayne is in the Badgers’ backfield, but it means they have options at least.
For the 2013 season, sophomore running back Melvin Gordon appears to be the number one option for the Badgers and their running attack.
Gordon has shown great promise in his brief appearances for the Badgers thus far. Gordon played in three of the Badgers’ non-conference games in 2011 before a groin injury caused him to redshirt. Last season, a healthy Gordon ran for over 600 yards and a few touchdowns in only four starts and touches in other games. For a player in his first full collegiate season, considering Gordon wasn’t the focal point of the Badgers’ running game, these are pretty good numbers.
Last year’s Big Ten championship game in particular should be evidence that there’s plenty of potential with Gordon. On only nine carries, Gordon rushed for over 200 yards and a touchdown during the Badgers’ spanking of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. And though that was the lone standout game for Gordon last season (other than a great showing against the UTEP Miners), the fact that it came in a game of such high importance can only be seen as a good sign.
The other thing that Gordon has going for him is time. Though Gordon would be eligible to go pro after this season, it’s highly unlikely that is going to happen considering the low amount of starts he has had. People in the football world haven’t seen enough of Gordon to give an educated opinion on him.
The one factor that could prevent Gordon from being the Badgers’ number one choice at running back is James White. The only senior running back on roster, White was the number two option last year, behind Ball. And that’s the way all of White’s time in Madison has been spent: playing second to Ball. However, White has still been getting the necessary touches to have a chance at success, and he’s been productive with those touches.
Like Gordon, White has few starts to his credit with the difference being the number of seasons each man has played in Madison. As mentioned earlier, Gordon has four starts in basically one season while White has only two starts in three seasons. But since White was number two, he ended with twice as many carries as Gordon last season and four times as many touchdown runs.
White’s potential for success is also there if he were given the duties of being the top running back for the Badgers in 2013. As a freshman, White rushed for over 1,000 yards without starting a game. And while Ball was having a season that got him some Heisman Trophy votes in 2011, White still managed over 700 yards and six touchdowns.
Andersen’s plans for the future of the Badgers’ offense likely means more emphasis on the quarterback. For right now, those days are still a season away. To make such changes to a team immediately in a coach’s first year usually results in a sub-par season or worse. Andersen is used to success as he was successful in his previous job, coaching the Utah St. Aggies. He should be smart enough to realize that a massive change in philosophy on either side of the ball is something that takes time and should be implemented gradually rather than all at once.
This means that the Badgers should live and die on offense with their running game for at least one more season. With that in mind, it will likely be Gordon and White together in the backfield with Gordon getting more of the carries. It’s likely but not certain as there are still almost two months before the start of the college football season.