Sophomore running back Melvin Gordon still regards it as one of the most difficult things he has ever had to do.
Gordon gave a non-binding oral commitment to Iowa in August of 2010 going into his senior year at Kenosha Bradford. It stayed that way for three months before a desire to stay closer to home led him to change his mind, de-commit from the Hawkeyes and switch to the University of Wisconsin around Thanksgiving.
“Probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, de-committing from them, because I had a really good relationship with the running backs coach, Lester Erb,” Gordon said after practice on Tuesday. “It was hard telling him I wanted to de-commit.”
Erb spent the previous 13 seasons at Iowa, including the last five as running backs coach, before leaving at the end of last season to pursue other opportunities. He is now the running backs coach and special teams coordinator at Nevada.
After Gordon mustered up the courage to make the call, Erb told him he wanted to meet with him face-to-face, so he made a trip to Bradford.
“He came up and visited my school and I talked to him in person about it,” Gordon said. “It was definitely tough for me.”
With the 22nd-ranked Badgers traveling to Iowa a week from Saturday, following this week’s bye, it will be the first chance for Gordon to face the Hawkeyes, who most recently played UW in 2010.
“It’s going to be fun,” Gordon said with a big grin.
Given how close the stands at Kinnick Stadium are to the opposing bench, Gordon will likely hear plenty about his change of heart.
“I might,” Gordon said. “They’re probably over it, but we’ll see.”
Fat chance Hawkeyes fans have forgotten about Gordon, who leads the Big Ten Conference and ranks third nationally in rushing at 144.6 yards per game. Nobody has done more, with less, this season than the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Gordon, who is not the preferred starter. Senior James White has started six of the seven games, with Gordon’s only start coming against Ohio State.
Gordon has rushed for 1,012 yards on just 107 carries, an average of 9.2 yards per carry, which leads all Football Bowl Subdivision players with at least 50 attempts.
He is the most explosive runner in the nation — and it’s not close. He leads or is tied for the FBS lead in runs of at least 20 yards (11), 30 yards (7), 50 yards (4), 60 yards (4), 70 yards (3) and 80 yards (1).
UW coach Gary Andersen said he’s never been around a running back as dynamic as Gordon.
“He’s a unique football player,” Andersen said. “He’s a special football player. He is what college football has really turned into, in my opinion in a lot of ways, and that’s every single time the young man touches the ball, somebody or some coach somewhere is taking a big deep breath and saying, ‘Watch out. Where’s this going to stop?’ It could go all the way every single time he touches it, and we’ve seen that.”
Defenses still haven’t figured out a way to stop the jet sweep, when Gordon lines up wide, goes in motion across the formation and is running at top speed when he gets the handoff from the quarterback.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said the speed with which Gordon gets to the corner and the blockers he has on the edge make it difficult to defend.
“You might take a bubble (screen) and there might be wide receivers out there blocking,” Beckman said. “With what they do a lot of times, it’s tight ends on the perimeter blocking. That has made it advantageous.
“They are such a great power and zone running football team, this is just an added dimension that gets the ball on the perimeter for them quickly.”
And if defenses focus too much attention on the outside, the Badgers can fake it to Gordon and give it to White up the middle.
“You’ve got to be really disciplined,” Gordon said of defenses. “If you overflow with too many guys toward me, James might pop it up the middle. Or if you focus too much on James. I might pop it.”
Needless to say, given what a great fit Gordon is for UW’s offense, he hasn’t spent much time wondering how things might have turned out at Iowa. But UW running backs coach Thomas Hammock sometimes needles his player about picking the Hawkeyes first.
“My coach gives me a hard time about it sometimes, ‘You probably could have been a starter at Iowa,’ ” Gordon said.
“I don’t think about it too much.”
Gordon’s decision to stay closer to home has paid dividends in other ways, too. His mom is a frequent visitor at practice, trying to come once a week.
“It’s good to have support,” Gordon said. “Not everybody’s mother or father can come here to support them. She’s not only supporting me but supporting other guys, whose mothers can’t make it.”
In addition to his relationship with Erb, the same things that appeal to Gordon about UW are what he liked about Iowa.
“The offensive linemen are big, they’re physical, same as here,” he said. “It’s almost the same, just different colors. Wisconsin was just closer to home.”
And Gordon couldn’t be happier with how it has turned out.
“Things are working out perfectly fine for me here,” he said. “Who knows how things would have worked out if I went to Iowa, but I am happy with how I’m doing here.”