MADISON — Melvin Gordon jumped in front of the pack of running backs getting ready for a group picture to strike a muscular pose for the cameras.
Wisconsin’s star junior always seems like he’s a couple steps ahead of the competition.
A season of high expectations is nearly here for Gordon, the 1,600-yard rusher assuming a new role with the Badgers that has nothing to do with his exceptional ability to run the ball. It’s time for Gordon to take on more of a leadership role in Madison.
Disregard the media day fun that Gordon had Friday with his teammates. In actuality, Gordon leaves that flash on the field for when real games begin.
“To this point, I couldn’t be more proud of the way he handles this team, the expectations of this team that he’ll be able to show as we continue to grow,” coach Gary Andersen said at Camp Randall Stadium.
Gordon, the nation’s second-leading returning rusher, is the unquestioned star on a team that took heavy personnel losses from 2013. When camp begins Monday, the Badgers will be without 13 starters from last season, most notably linebacker Chris Borland, receiver Jared Abbrederis and running back James White.
Gordon looked up to White, who is now in the NFL with the New England Patriots. Now Gordon is ready to help his talented backup, sophomore Corey Clement, take on a bigger role in the offense.
“Now I have to grow up and I’m ready for the challenge,” Gordon said. “James took me under his wing; it’s only right I do the same thing to Corey.”
Gordon’s success will be important in determining the fate of the Badgers, who are a favorite to win the newly-realigned Big Ten West division.
There are some unsettled issues, though, starting at a familiar position. Wisconsin is once again beginning the year with a quarterback competition, with incumbent Joel Stave facing a challenge from dual-threat junior Tanner McEvoy.
Stave, who suffered a shoulder injury at the Capital One Bowl in January that lingered into spring practice, is ready to go for preseason camp.
“I like where those two kids are battling,” Andersen said. “It will be interesting to see where those two kids go in the process.”
Eight starters are gone on defense, with the front seven suffering the heaviest losses. Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda have tweaked the scheme to add flexibility and more speed.
The change in part is to help compensate for the increase of spread looks in the college game.
“We feel like we’re going to be faster. We feel like we have the ability to run well. We’ve got some athleticism,” Andersen said.
But not as much experience. Andersen realizes that is one of the lingering questions about this year’s team – and it might be a reason he described his team in part as “edgy” headed into training camp.
“The bottom line is that there (are) a lot of question marks,” he said. “I don’t discount that at all. … If I was a player, I would be a little edgy if I heard that.”
Gordon is about as close as the Badgers have for what qualifies as a certainty. The nation’s active career leader in rushing average (8.1 yards per carry) bypassed a chance to enter the NFL draft to return to school.
Don’t expect to see Gordon slacking off any time soon.
“When (younger players) see you slacking … they might think it’s OK to slack, too, when it’s not,” Gordon said. “You have to be leader. You have to understand, and you have to have a Grade-A performance in whatever you do.”