This is the second in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team’s start of practice.
July 22: Quarterbacks July 23: Running backs July 24: Wide receivers July 25: Tight ends July 26: Offensive linemen July 27: Defensive linemen July 28: Linebackers July 29: Cornerbacks July 30: Safeties July 31: Specialists Aug. 1: Coaches
TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5
Projected starter: James Gillum (junior)
Key backups: Donnell Kirkwood (redshirt sophomore), David Cobb (sophomore)
The breakdown: Minnesota didn’t have much of a running game to speak of in 2011. The Gophers averaged 160.0 yards per game on the ground, third-fewest in the run-oriented Big Ten. It says something about Minnesota’s running back crop when quarterback MarQueis Gray was the leading rusher with 966 yards — over 300 yards more than senior running back Duane Bennett.
Bennett is now gone, meaning Minnesota must replace its most experienced running back with a crop of relatively inexperienced and untested rushers. After Bennett, who had 166 carries, only one other back had more than 11 carries last year. That was redshirt freshman Kirkwood, who has been injury prone during his two years on campus. He was granted a medical hardship waiver in 2010 due to a hamstring injury. That same injury was a problem in 2011, although Kirkwood saw action in all 12 games for the Gophers and picked up 229 yards on 63 carries. The hamstring injury reappeared for Kirkwood during spring camp earlier this year. He’ll have to prove he can stay healthy to receive a good amount of carries.
It appears as if newcomer James Gillum, a junior college transfer, could be Minnesota’s go-to back after an impressive spring. Gillum comes to the Gophers via Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where he ran for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns during his sophomore season in 2011. As a freshman, he rushed for 1,297 yards and found the end zone 16 times.
“James is a very mature kid and an awful good football player,” head coach Jerry Kill said of Gillum this spring. “James has been somewhat like a sponge. He’s soaked it all in and has picked things up pretty quick and surprisingly well. That’s a compliment to him.”
David Cobb should get some carries as well in 2012. The sophomore from Killeen, Tex., impressed in spring camp a year ago but only saw limited playing time during his freshman year. He had just 10 carries for 57 yards. Redshirt sophomore Devon Right, the tallest back at six feet, could challenge Cobb for carries as a backup. Wright appeared in eight games but had just one carry all season.
Best position battle: The Gophers didn’t have much in terms of running back depth this season, and it will be important that someone can emerge as the top backup to take the load off whoever ends up as the starter, whether it be Gillum or another back. After Bennett and Kirkwood last season, the rest of Minnesota’s running backs had just 19 combined carries — eight of those were by Lamonte Edwards, who has since switched positions to play linebacker.
It will be essential for either Kirkwood, Cobb or Wright to step up and be a capable backup if Gillum is indeed the starter. Kirkwood is a bit more of a physical runner than Gillum and could provide a change of pace. But running the ball isn’t the only skill Minnesota will need from its backups. The Gophers will have to find a back that can protect Gray in passing situations — and perhaps even catch a few passes out of the backfield. Of the 134 total catches made by the Gophers in 2011, only three were by a running back (Bennett). The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield would help boost Minnesota’s lackluster passing offense and give Gray another target.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin; 2. Nebraska; 3. Michigan State. The Wisconsin Badgers bring back a Heisman Trophy finalist in running back Montee Ball, who tied the NCAA record for most touchdowns in a season with 39 (33 rushing, six receiving) last year. He finished the year with 1,923 rushing yards, tops in the nation. Ball opted to return to Madison for his senior season instead of entering the NFL Draft. Behind Ball, Wisconsin also has experienced back James White in the backfield as well as sophomore Melvin Gordon, who had 20 carries a year ago. As a unit, Wisconsin’s running backs helped the Badgers led the Big Ten with 235.6 rushing yards per game last season. Nebraska brings back the Big Ten’s third-leading rusher from a year ago in Rex Burkhead, who gained 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns on 283 carries. Michigan State junior Le’Veon Bell was among the top six backs in the conference in 2011 with 1/041 yards on 187 carries; senior Larry Caper also has experience in the backfield for MSU with 188 career carries, although his carries have dwindled since his freshman year in 2009.