Joe Mixon and Wisconsin: A Perfect Fit

by Pete Lunchbox

This past week Melvin Gordon announced that he would return to Wisconsin for his redshirt junior season.  With Gordon coming off a season in which he had 181 carries for 1466 yards and 12 TDs, this announcement would appear to be a great break for the Badgers.  However, amongst a segment of the fanbase his announcement was met with apprehension, even disappointment as it seemingly put the year-long recruitment of Joe Mixon in jeopardy.  The top-rated running back has repeatedly expressed a desire to make an impact on the field early; the return of a likely pre-season Heisman favorite would put the Badgers at a serious disadvantage in relation to his other suitors. 

mixonnw.jpg

Those fears may be ill-conceived.  When analyzing the recent history of similar recruits, the data shows that projecting the California standout to start as a true freshman is neither realistic nor in his best interest.  Rather than a detriment, the ability to offer Mixon a one-year internship under Gordon is one of the strongest points Wisconsin can make if his goal is to reach the NFL.

Since Joe Mixon first showed an interest in Wisconsin, many fans have kept close tabs on his recruitment as Madison has not been a traditional landing spot for elite recruits. According to Rivals, Wisconsin has only had two 5 star commitments since 2002 (Josh Oglesby and Justin Ostrowski) and both were in state.  Much of the excitement comes from the idea that signing Mixon would shift perceptions, signaling Wisconsin as a destination program for elite recruits nationwide, raising the profile – and achievements – of the program to new heights.

While the excitement over the recruitment of Joe Mixon is partially due to the novelty of a 5 star recruit showing an interest the Badgers, there are also genuine football concerns at play.  As soon as Mixon signed many fans would be ready to rewrite the depth chart and pencil him in for 20 carries per game.  Unfortunately the history of highly touted running backs is spotty at best, even discouraging in many cases.

Since 2002, Rivals has listed 45 running backs as 5 star recruits.  The list includes illustrious names such as C.J. Spiller, Adrian Peterson, and Reggie Bush.  It also includes largely forgotten players like Jason Gwaltney, Mike Bellamy, and Jermie Calhoun, who disappeared from the spotlight before they had a chance to make an impression.  In their first year, only two players from this group had more than 200 rushing attempts, and only four were able to crack 1000 yards rushing (both benchmarks are something roughly 50 FBS running backs do each year). 

Average Statistics for 5-Star Running Backs

Year

Players

Mean Attempts

Mean Yards

Freshman

45

91

485

Sophomore

37

108

608

Junior

25

166

922

Senior

14

105

502

While there will occasionally be a freshman that is a workhorse out of the gate like Peterson (something no doubt mentioned by fellow favorite Oklahoma) or Marcus Lattimore, they represent the exceptions, not the norm.  Mixon very well might be an outlier in the mold of Adrian Peterson, but there is far more evidence to suggest that expecting a true freshman to start is not realistic, or for Joe himself not in his best interest.

While the history of 5 star recruits is less illustrious than what many assume, it’s better to examine players that have succeeded in the NFL and look for similarities in their collegiate careers.  If Mixon dreams of an NFL future, history indicates that a starting workload as a freshman is not the best way to get there.

From 2008-2013 there were 42 running backs taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft who played at FBS schools as freshmen.  There are many who were highly touted out of high school, but also a fair amount who flew under the radar.  Of this group of 42, only nine hit the 200 carry mark in their first year.    

A far more common occurrence was a freshman year with less than 100 carries (such as 2nd round draft pick and Badger alumnus Montee Ball with 98 carries for 391 yards) with their workload increasing as they became upper classmen.  While the sample size is obviously not huge, it does indicate that even the most elite running backs often experience an adjustment period.  In a position where careers are often short, it seems prudent to ration the hits taken early in a career, saving them for when the player is seasoned and able to maximize their impact.

Average Rushing Statistics for 1st-3rd Round Draft Picks

Year

Players

Mean Attempts

Mean Yards

Freshman

42

127

689

Sophomore

42

167

939

Junior

37

228

1304

Senior

12

259

1377

With the evidence mounting that Mixon shouldn’t want a starter’s workload as a freshman, the focus then shifts to how Wisconsin can serve his developmental needs.  Even if he’s not starting day one, Mixon is going to want a fair amount of playing time. 

The fact is Melvin Gordon is also not the only returning running back with significant playing time. Corey Clement is coming off a promising freshman campaign.  That said, even accounting for increases in attempts for both Gordon and Clement, there should be plenty of time for a third RB. 

Over the last four years Wisconsin’s system has consistently found space for 3 good rushing options, with the top three rushers averaging 508 carries per year.  Estimating 50% increases in carries for both Clement and Gordon, they still only project for a combined 371 carries.  If past patters hold, that offers 125 carries for a 3rd back to work in with Gordon and Clement.   The three headed monster of James White, John Clay, and Montee Ball in 2010 was very effective; it’s reasonable to envision something similar in 2014 if Joe Mixon picks Wisconsin.

In a perfect world a recruit of Joe Mixon’s potential showing interest in the Badgers would be a common occurrence rather than a novelty that captivates the fan base. When presented with a player as highly touted as Mixon, it is easy to picture them dominating the ball from the first game.  Both of the other finalists in Mixon’s recruitment seem positioned to offer him just that opportunity, with no returning running backs on either Oklahoma or UCLA even cracking 600 yards. 

Top 3 Wisconsin Rushers 2010-13

Year

Player

Carries

Yards

2013

Melvin Gordon

181

1466

2013

James White

209

1337

2013

Corey Clement

66

515

2012

Montee Ball

356

1830

2012

James White

125

806

2012

Melvin Gordon

62

621

2011

Montee Ball

307

1923

2011

James White

141

713

2011

Russell Wilson

79

338

2010

James White

156

1052

2010

John Clay

187

1012

2010

Montee Ball

163

996

In the long run though, the history of both highly touted recruits and players who developed into NFL running backs indicates that a player of Joe Mixon's talents should want at least a shared load for the first year or two of college.  With Melvin Gordon back to do the heavy lifting, Wisconsin and Joe Mixon seem like a perfect fit for one another. 

For Mixon, there is a battle-tested plan to reach the NFL.  For Wisconsin, if he’s as good as advertised – an admittedly big if – Joe could be that piece that transcends the Badger program from the ranks of the very good to the elite.  No matter how his NFL career pans out, Mixon has a chance to be a Wisconsin legend.