Mostly, he looks like a sprinter.
The long strides, the lanky frame, the explosive burst -- Melvin Gordon will run right by you, and he will make you look foolish while doing it.
Since Barry Alvarez remade Wisconsin into a respectable football program, there's been a solid tradition of effective college running backs rolling through Madison over the last couple decades. It's a program that, from Alvarez to Bret Bielema and now through Gary Andersen, has a clear identity: big offensive linemen paving the way for old-school power football. Since 2000, Wisconsin has run the ball more than any non-option team in the nation. That identity has not changed, and given the recent success of the Badgers, there's little reason it should.
But Gordon adds a new dimension to the Wisconsin aesthetic, and the Big Ten's too. He's not only the most exciting runner in the Big Ten, but perhaps all of college football. Had he left for the NFL draft after his junior season, he may have been the first running back taken, maybe even getting a look late in the first round despite the NFL's reluctance to take running backs early. It's not because he's the prototypical Big Ten power back and nobody's strong enough to tackle him; it's because nobody's able to react quickly enough to bring him down.
"He's so fluid and easy and graceful," an NFL personnel director told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in February. "He's [expletive] really good. He's a first-rounder."
Gordon would likely thrive in any offense, but it's hard not to look at him and wonder what would happen at Oregon or Arizona in the run-heavy spread; in a Baylor offense that maximizes the use of space; or at Auburn, which had a version of Gordon of its own last year, when Corey Grant averaged 9.8 yards per carry on his 66 attempts as an outside specialist behind Tre Mason. What Grant did was awfully similar to the 2012 season of Gordon, who, playing behind Montee Ball and James White, averaged 10 yards per carry on 62 attempts. Last year, with Ball gone, Gordon stepped up into a rotation next to White, and each broke the 200-carry mark to finish in the top eight of the Big Ten in rush attempts. With the increased workload, Gordon ran 206 times for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, with nearly a quarter of those carries (50) going for at least 10 yards.
Of all college football players with at least 200 career carries since 2000, Gordon ranks second in yards per carry at 8.1, according to College Football Reference, ranking behind only Navy's Shun White. Gordon is one of the few speed backs in a power offense near the top of the list, which is mostly an assortment of what we would expect: option backs (like Shun White) and speedy backs in spread offenses (De'Anthony Thomas, Lache Seastrunk). Gordon fits in the Reggie Bush category, the mid-sized speedsters playing in traditional offenses.
They are different players, of course. Nobody since Barry Sanders, arguably, has had the impossibly nimble feet of Bush in the college game. Bush's unparalleled shiftiness magnified his explosive burst and took him to another level that few players have ever reached. Gordon doesn't quite have that ability. He can make defenders miss, but he's no Sanders or Bush, because nobody is. He does, however, excel as a straight-line back who sees a hole and gets through it to the second level faster than anyone else currently playing college football.
In other words: This is not quite the Ron Dayne offense in Madison. It's power football with a devastating wrinkle.
It's not as if all Wisconsin backs have been big 250-pound bruisers or anything. Ron Dayne broke records, but he's not the only model for a Badgers running back. They've come in all shapes and sizes, with Bettis types like Dayne and John Clay barreling through the line, while smaller backs like James White duck out from behind their massive linemen and average-sized one-cut backs like Montee Ball find the end zone time after time. Gordon, at 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, isn't hiding from anyone, and he isn't necessarily running over them either. It just doesn't matter, because all Wisconsin's line needs to do is create a split second of space for him to find a crease and burst through it to the second level.
Teams like Wisconsin generally minimize the amount of space defenses have to cover, instead depending on their size and power up front to control the line of scrimmage and grind out yards. The presence of Gordon allows the best of both worlds: He's a fine runner between the tackles because of his vision, but he also expands the field horizontally and makes defenses account for more space -- something especially necessary because the Badgers aren't very adept at throwing downfield and lost their only wideout with more than 12 catches, Jared Abbrederis. Someone has to keep defenses honest, and using Gordon as an inside/outside threat who lines up wide to run jet sweeps has been a successful answer. With no proven receivers and the quarterback race still up in the air between Tanner McEvoy and last year's starter Joel Stave, Wisconsin will undoubtedly continue to rely heavily on it.
Ground-and-pound attacks are usually breeding grounds for "volume" backs. Look at Stanford, where Tyler Gaffney had 1,717 yards but needed 331 carries to do it. Look at Michigan State, where Jeremy Langford broke out with 1,422 yards but was held to 4.9 yards per carry, breaking the five-yard mark in only three of 14 games. By contrast, Gordon was held under five yards per carry in only three of 13 games. In fact, he averaged more yards per rush attempt than Wisconsin averaged per pass attempt, which sounds like the most Big Ten thing ever, if it wasn't for the fact that Gordon was putting up ungodly numbers and the Badgers' passing numbers were merely decent.
Not that he's the perfect running back. While he lines up wide often, he's not actually a proven receiving threat, with just three catches in two seasons. He also has problems in pass protection, which meant that White saw most of the time in passing situations and caught 39 passes last year in addition to claiming blocking responsibilities. Gordon has eclipsed 20 carries only two times ever, which is good for his longevity but also means he has plenty to prove as a featured runner in both pursuing the Heisman Trophy and trying to break into the first round of the draft. This year, more will be expected in all facets. While he won't have to shoulder the full load, because Corey Clement is the next man up after averaging 8.2 yards on 67 attempts as a freshman, he's the veteran now, the clear top option after White was still around to quietly and successfully handle a lot of the dirty work.
While Gordon is not necessarily a slam dunk for NFL stardom, there's plenty to appreciate right now without needing to worry about his pro future. In a Big Ten that's perceived as sluggish, unchanging, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football, Gordon brings something else to the table without altering what we've come to expect -- and what's largely still been successful -- out of Wisconsin football. He's a readymade Oregon Duck who just happens to be from Kenosha, Wis., and decided to stay home in Madison (after originally committing to a similar type of team at Iowa) to bring an explosive element to a power offense.
The running back position may be devalued, but before they get to the pros, there's still an opportunity for running backs to act as the most transcendent talents on the football field. When defenses are a step slower and a little more raw, a great talent at running back can make impossible acts look easy, turning messy inside runs into 80-yard touchdowns to average an absurd eight yards per carry for the season. An evolving role with both Ball and White now gone may make things difficult for Gordon, but the season also presents a golden opportunity for his often transcendent play to continue: After opening with LSU, Wisconsin avoids run-ins with top Big Ten run defenses at Michigan State, and it could be smooth sailing behind an offensive line that returns four starters.
Wisconsin may still be a plodding offense attempting to lull you to sleep, but it's doing so to create opportunities for Gordon to find a seam and run past entire defenses. For 2014, at least, the most entertaining ball carrier in college football is in the Big Ten.