MINNEAPOLIS — Rodrick Williams Jr. will double-check to make sure his alarm clock is set this week.
Williams, the Gophers’ sophomore running back, was late to a team meeting last week and as a result was held out of the first half of Minnesota’s season opener against UNLV. By the time Williams was finally inserted into the game, he got just four second-half carries for 13 yards.
The window of opportunity will potentially be greater for Williams and the other running backs this Saturday when Minnesota travels to play New Mexico State. Starting tailback Donnell Kirkwood suffered an ankle injury in the Gophers’ 51-23 victory Thursday and, according to head coach Jerry Kill, is a “huge question mark” for Saturday’s game.
That means someone else — possibly Williams — could get the start against NMSU.
As long as he sets his alarm clock, that is.
“If I didn’t play (Thursday), I would expect it because I was late to the meeting,” Williams said. “I was ready the whole game, whenever they wanted to put me in.”
Williams was Minnesota’s No. 2 option behind Kirkwood for most of last year, but he didn’t debut until midway through the season when his redshirt was lifted in the Gophers’ sixth game of the year. Williams finished the season with 261 yards and two touchdowns on 57 carries.
Meanwhile, Kirkwood’s absence in the second half Thursday meant an opportunity for junior David Cobb, who has waited for this type of moment for two years. Cobb played in just four games as a freshman and had 10 carries in 2011. Last year he had just one rushing attempt for eight yards.
On Cobb’s sixth and final carry against UNLV, he found an opening on the left side and broke loose for a 60-yard rush. That one run nearly equaled his total yardage from his first two seasons (68 yards) and set up a Minnesota touchdown five plays later.
While frustrated that he didn’t score on the career-long run, Cobb still felt his 60-yard sprint was a sign that his hard work and his patience the last two years were worth it.
“You sit around for two years. To have an opportunity to just go in like that, perfectly blocked play and you get a cut and you explode down the sideline for 60, that lets you know what you can do if you work hard,” Cobb said. “It makes you hungrier every day to come out here and be like, ‘If I can do that every game, it’d be pretty good.'”
Kill said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if Kirkwood will travel to New Mexico this weekend. True freshman running back Berkley Edwards missed the season opener with an ankle injury and also sounds as if it’s unlikely he’ll play Saturday.
If Kirkwood can’t go, though, Kill and the coaching staff have confidence in the rest of the running backs to pick up the slack.
“I think we’ve had our best week of practice at running back. That’s not because Donnell hasn’t done good. It’s just that these kids go, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity here. We need to step it up,'” Kill said. “We’re fortunate. We have a little bit of depth there at this point in time. We can’t afford any more injuries, but those guys will be fine.”
In its season-opening loss to Texas, New Mexico State allowed the Longhorns to rush for 359 yards; two Texas players had over 90 yards, while two more rushed for over 60 yards. Minnesota — which rushed for 221 yards in its win against UNLV — feels confident about its ability to run against the Aggies defense on Saturday.
Now it’s just a matter of which back will be getting the bulk of the carries. Cobb and Williams both see the opportunity at hand, and both are working to seize it.
“We’re all friends off the field. But on the field, it’s every man for himself,” Cobb said. “Everybody wants to start. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. When you’re on the field, everyone’s competing. If one man has a 20-yard run, you want a 30-yard run. It’s just all competition.”