IT'S NEARING 3 A.M. in Madison, Wisconsin, and many of Melvin Gordon's teammates are lounging at home after a June night out -- splayed on couches, winding down, getting ready to call it a night. Gordon is not. To find him, you'd need to look to the front yard, where the 6-foot-1 junior has tossed a rope ladder to the ground and chosen this time, as good a time as any, to run a few agility drills. Bouncing on his toes, knees raised high, legs pumping like pistons, soaked in sweat, he's darting between each rung, an athlete's version of hopscotch. Leftrightleftright, ininoutout, leftrightleftright, ininoutout. If you didn't know better, you might think he was chasing something.
Gordon pauses, just long enough to catch his breath, and fires off a Snapchat to Kenzel Doe, a senior receiver for the Badgers: "Are you sleeping or getting better? I'm getting better."
Doe knows the routine well. "We'll all be hanging out, and Melvin will go home ... and do drills before he goes to bed," Doe says. "He's always going to do a little bit extra, something to help him get to where he's going."
Where Gordon is going -- or wants to go -- says as much about today's NFL as it does about the player himself. Entering the 2014 season, he's among the nation's premier running backs. He rushed for 1,609 yards a year ago, compiling at least 140 yards rushing in eight of his 13 games. He broke off four runs of 60 yards or more. He led the nation with 7.8 yards per carry.
He could easily have turned pro; the fourth-year junior received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board, which likely would have been good enough to make him the first running back picked. Good enough for that -- but not good enough for Gordon. And so he got to work.
This offseason, he bulked up to 216 pounds, after arriving as a freshman at 195 pounds. He's squatted 510 pounds five times this summer; last year the most he could do was 465 pounds. "And that was maybe two reps," Gordon says.
The man who hasn't lost a fumble in his 288 career rushing attempts spent hours flexing his hands in a sand bucket, strengthening his grip and his forearms. Then Gordon, Doe and junior cornerback Devin Gaulden began running the entire lower section at Camp Randall Stadium ... wearing 25-pound vests.
It was an ambitious offseason -- by design. "He's not cocky," Doe says. "But [he believes] he's going to be the best running back in the country. If you call that cocky, I guess he is."
Gordon seems like a man out to prove a point, and further proof resides on his bedroom wall, where he has taped a lineup of his collegiate running back competition: Georgia's Todd Gurley, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Miami's Duke Johnson. Gordon wants to beat them. He also wants to lift them up. "When I'm running sprints and lifting, I'm not just thinking about the guys in our room," he says. "I'm not just competing with them. I'm thinking about Gurley. I'm thinking about Yeldon, Abdullah and the new guys coming in.
"You hear a lot of things about running backs not being as important anymore. Some people in the NFL may think they don't need backs early in the draft. I want to change that."