by Scott Gleeson, Daily Vidette Sports Editor
Redbird sophomore Cliffton Gordon has waited his turn. After taking the backseat to a stable of running backs last season, the 5-foot-10 tailback has moved into the driver’s seat this season.
“We’ve had a lot of great [running] backs here and last year we were loaded. I’m always just trying to find my role on the team,” said Gordon, boasting a brash smile.
In 2008, Gordon watched three other running backs take carries in Denver Johnson’s offense.
With the transition to a spread offense under first-year head coach Brock Spack, it looked as if Gordon would again take the back seat in a more pass-oriented offensive scheme.
Not a chance. On the contrary, the spread offense was the opening Gordon needed.
“We always knew that he had talent,” running backs coach Holmon Wiggins said.
“It’s just been where to put him in. We’ve been blessed to have good [running] backs and he’s still young as a sophomore. He’s waited and now he’s trying to see what he can do. We’ve been seeing it for a while now and now everybody else is seeing it.”
In ISU’s 38-7 home victory over Austin Peay last Saturday, Gordon erupted for 96 yards on 17 carries to pace the Redbirds’ running assault.
In addition, Gordon reached pay dirt four times to tie a Hancock Stadium record. Gordon’s groundwork provided him with career-highs in all three categories, while his four touchdowns were the most by a Redbird runner since 2005.
Gordon’s breakout performance did not go unrecognized. The Chicago Heights, Ill., native was tabbed the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week Sunday.
“I really like the way Cliffton runs,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “He’s a north-south runner. He showed a lot of toughness and did a great job [Saturday]. When he’s in the red zone, he’s hard to stop.”
Gordon has been sharing carries with senior standout Geno Blow, who entered the season as the Valley’s top active rusher. Although the spread is a one-back offense, Gordon believes two running backs can coexist.
“I think it keeps the defense on edge switching us in and out. It keeps teams on their toes,” Gordon said.
In comparison to Blow’s stop-and-go style of play, Gordon provides a more bowling ball-like style.
“Cliff is a slasher and he reaches his top speed fairly quick,” Wiggins said. “He gets from 0-60 very fast and he runs with some power. He does a good job with getting his shoulder squared and getting downhill, which we love for a running back to do.”
Wiggins said Gordon’s style of play is suited more for the ‘Birds’ spread offense.
“It’s different because we used to have guys hugged in tight, with short splits and all of that kind of stuff,” Wiggins said.
“Now we’re opened up a little bit and I think it’s starting to benefit [Cliffton] because he’s used to being in tight spaces so now, he’s getting wide open creases and a wide open offense. He didn’t have that much room last year to maneuver, so now he’s taking advantage of it.”
Gordon has used a gradual approach to the new offense.
“The spread offense in the spring took a while to get used to,” he said. “We know in the spread fense, we have a whole new role catching the ball as well as protecting. Right now, I think we’re believing in the coaches and it’s all coming together.”
In the Redbirds’ first two games, ISU’s running attack combined for just 66 total yards. After bouncing back with a 153-yard team rushing performance against Austin Peay, Gordon believes the running game is much improved.
“The first two games, I think it took us a while to get clicking,” Gordon said. “Now, we’re coming into our own and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams offensively.”
Gordon’s uprising can be credited to his preparation coming into the 2009 season. After seeing time on special teams and getting a few carries last season, Gordon put in the time starting in December.
“I knew coming into this year that I’d have to step my game up to a whole new level,” said Gordon, who rushed for 102 yards off of 20 carries last season. “I knew my workload would be increased on offense. I just worked real hard in the offense to prepare my best. The coaches have a lot of faith in me and I just try to come out and play hard.”
“I feel like since I’ve gotten here, I’ve grown as a player both mentally and physically. My goal is to keep contributing to the team. I just want to win.”
Coming off a career performance, Gordon is riding a wave of confidence heading into the Redbirds’ home game against South Dakota State Saturday. Wiggins has donned the task of keeping his young running back grounded.
“Anybody that has a game like that should be feeling pretty good about themselves,” Huggins said. “But it’s my job to bring him back down and let him know that he hasn’t arrived yet. So, I’m trying to keep him hungry, let him know we’ve got more games to play and there’s more Clifton to show everybody.”