Gophers hope for 1,000-yard season from Donnell Kirkwood

This is the second in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.

TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6.5

Projected starter: Donnell Kirkwood (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Rodrick Williams (sophomore), David Cobb (junior), James Gillum (senior)

The breakdown: While quarterback MarQueis Gray led the team in rushing in 2011, Minnesota relied more on its running backs in 2012 — thanks in part to an ankle injury that eventually shifted Gray to wide receiver. Still, the Gophers’ rushing attack was more balanced last year and finished in the middle of the pack among Big Ten teams. Minnesota finished the year with 1,975 yards and an average of 151.9 yards per game, seventh in a Big Ten conference that was deep with plenty of talented running backs. As the Gophers’ offensive line continues to improve, so too should the running game.

After serving as a backup running back in 2011, Donnell Kirkwood emerged in 2012 as an every-down back for Minnesota. As a redshirt sophomore last year, the 5-foot-10, 223-pound Kirkwood carried the ball 218 times for 926 yards and six touchdowns. Previously plagued by nagging injuries, Kirkwood managed to stay healthy all year and started all 13 games. The Gophers will again need him to stay healthy and on the field as they hope to see his production increase in 2013. Kirkwood has a chance to be a 1,000-yard back this year; Minnesota hasn’t had a running back gain 1,000 yards in a season since Amir Pinnix in 2006.

As a true freshman, Rodrick Williams emerged as a second weapon out of the backfield. The 5-foot-11, 235-pound Williams debuted midway through the season against Northwestern and played in the Gophers’ final eight games. He had perhaps his best game in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, rushing for 60 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against Texas Tech.

While Kirkwood still figures to be the top back, there’s a chance Williams may get a bigger share of the carries than he did a year ago. He managed to rush 57 times in eight games, a number that should rise in 2013.

Outside of those two, it remains to be seen which other back can contribute. Minnesota is high on incoming freshman running back Berkley Edwards, but it remains to be seen if he’ll play as a freshman or if the Gophers will redshirt him.

Best position battle: Kirkwood and Williams should get the majority of the carries next year, but Minnesota will need a third change-of-pace back to spell those two. Cobb’s name was mentioned by coaches plenty this spring as someone who could be that back — although we’ve seen that a strong spring does not necessarily translate into a successful fall. Cobb had just one carry last year and 10 carries the year before, but coaches rave about his athleticism.

Gillum was used sparingly last year, rushing just 27 times for 73 yards (2.7 yards per carry). He did find the end zone once on a 16-yard scamper for his lone touchdown of the year. A former junior college player, Gillum is another option for the Gophers’ third running back. Coaches raved about his performance last spring but he fell out of favor during the season. Now a senior, this is his last chance to make an impact on offense.

Neither back will likely get a significant number of touches; Gillum’s 27 rushes last year were the most for a back besides Kirkwood and Williams. Still, Minnesota needs to find a third option. Gillum and Cobb each have a chance to be that guy.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Venric Mark (Northwestern) 2. Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) 3. James White (Wisconsin)

Gophers fans know Mark well, as he ran for a season-high 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a win over Minnesota last year. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in rushing and third among running backs. The top two backs ahead of him, Le’Veon Bell and Montee Ball, are both gone to the NFL. After averaging 6.1 yards per game as a junior, Mark should be the top back in a conference filled with plenty of good ones.

Abdullah emerged as a sophomore to rush for 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns. He was part of a dynamic rushing duo at Nebraska, along with Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez. Meanwhile, White will be part of a similar two-headed rushing attack at Wisconsin along with Melvin Gordon. White has been in the shadow of Ball for the last few years and now has a chance to be the top Badgers back.

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover says: “I think one of the great things is I would say David (Cobb), when he gets the ball in his hands, as far as his vision, he very well may have the best vision of any of our running backs as far as seeing things, making cuts, finding that little bit that maybe someone else doesn’t know is going to be there or kind of materializes late. He has a great knack for that.

“So now he’s got the physical ability, he’s got that. Now just the consistency of taking the proper footwork to make sure he’s getting the ball where he needs to. The other things we talk about all the time is pass protection and making sure he’s going the right way and when he doesn’t have the ball, how he’s playing. Those are the things that will be the challenge.”

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