MADISON, Wis. - Melvin Gordon has a big decision to make in the next few weeks- should he stay or should he go? The success of his football career hangs in the balance: Gordon could strike while the iron is hot and declare for the 2014 NFL Draft, or he could stay at Wisconsin for at least one season as the team's featured running back. Both choices come with their own risks and rewards.
For instance, declaring for the NFL Draft this season very well could make Gordon a lot of money. He's currently ranked as one of the top non-senior running backs who could turn pro, after rushing for 1466 yards and 12 touchdowns on 181 carries in his first season as a key part of Wisconsin's offense.
And for a player who already has a lot of highlight-reel plays, Gordon doesn't have much wear and tear on his body: he has just 263 carries in college, whereas former Badger running back Montee Ball had 924 carries to his name when he turned pro after his senior season.
But Gordon can learn from Ball's example in other ways, too. Ball received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board after his junior season, when he rushed for 33 touchdowns and 1923 yards and ended up in New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ball decided to return to school to try and improve his draft stock, but his productivity suffered as a senior.
His numbers were down in his final season with the Badgers, rushing for 5.1 yards per carry after averaging 6.3 as a junior. Ball was also assaulted just before the start of fall camp, which left him unable to practice for several days and contributed to his season's slow start.
Gordon knows full well that there is no 'safe' choice to make. He could turn pro and find out that teams weren't as high on him as some analysts were, or he could return to school and end up injured or see his productivity slip as his carries per game start to tick up. Gordon said he hasn't made up his mind yet, but he's keeping several people involved in his decision making process as the deadline draws nearer.
"I've been thinking about it a lot," Gordon said Tuesday after practice. "I don't want to say I do [want to stay], I don't want to say I don't. I've talked to my coaches about it, I've talked to my mom about it. I've just gotta sit down and go over it with them more."
Gordon said he's been talking to running backs coach Thomas Hammock and head coach Gary Andersen about what his best choice would be, and so far both coaches have told him that he could use another year of seasoning before turning his attention to the NFL.
That's not just because the 2014 Wisconsin Badgers would be undoubtedly better with Gordon than without him. Andersen said he wants Gordon to do what's best for him, even if that does mean sending him off to the NFL at the end of the season.
"Melvin doesn't hide anything, and there's no agenda on our end either," Andersen said after practice Tuesday. "The agenda is to take care of the young man and put him in a position to be successful and talk it all out, and that's what we've done."
Andersen laid out a few major reasons why he thinks Gordon should stay in school. First of all, Andersen said another year of school would give Gordon a chance to finish his degree or get very close to finishing it, and the 6-foot-1 running back agreed that finishing his degree is important to him. Andersen also said that it would be fun to see Gordon compete for some of the individual awards that he fell out of contention for this season, like the Heisman Trophy or the Doak Walker Award. Gordon also agreed that competing for a Heisman and other individual awards is important to him, and he feels as though he would have a better shot next year should he return to Wisconsin.
"If I stay I'll be a contender [for the Heisman] next year," Gordon said.
But Gordon also has a few on-the-field reasons to stay at Wisconsin for another year of seasoning. Because while Gordon thinks he's a pretty good pass-catcher and pass-blocker, he didn't get a lot of chances to put that part of his game on film.
Gordon said Hammock let him know that NFL teams are going to want to know exactly what they're getting for their draft pick, and that an NFL team won't have time to sit around and wait to find out exactly how Gordon could help them on the field.
"[Hammock] told me that they don't have time- there's no time to be wasted on a player," Gordon said. "They might now have the patience with you. When you go there you need to be on top of everything. They're trying to win games- it's a business."
But even though Andersen and Hammock both think it's in his best interest to stay at Wisconsin, Gordon has at least one other person who isn't quite so sure. Gordon said that his mother was adamant that he should stay in school for another year at the start of the season, but agents and other people have gotten in touch with her to gauge her son's interest in turning pro. And while Gordon said he's been able to shut out the hype and doesn't look at many mock drafts, it's harder for other people to tune it all out.
"Some people were getting in to her ear too," Gordon said of his mother. "She wanted me to stay at first- I think she's kind of shying away from that. I talked to my father and he wants me to stay. Now she's considering it like maybe I should go.
"At the end of the day she said 'It's whatever you want.'"
Whatever Gordon does want, and it's hard to be sure at this point, he has until Jan. 15 to declare for the draft since he's an underclassman. That's two weeks after Wisconsin's game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, but Gordon said he'd like to make his decision soon after the bowl game.
And while Gordon said getting a third-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board like Ball did two years ago is not good enough for him to jump to the NFL, Gordon said he did seek out Ball for any advice his former teammate would have for him.
"[Montee] just said 'Don't let someone trick you into doing something you don't want to do,'" Gordon said.
From a career perspective all Gordon, his family and the Badgers can do is wait for the NFL to get back to him with their report and see where that takes them. In the meantime Gordon and the Badgers still have a chance to take care of business against the Gamecocks in Orlando.
Only time will tell if that game ends up as a prelude to Gordon's first season as Wisconsin's featured running back, or if the Badgers will have seen the last of one of the most athletically gifted players to play for the Badgers in a long time.
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