MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team is searching for a starting running back this fall, and all signs point to junior college transfer James Gillum as that No. 1 back.
Only Gillum insists he’s not approaching it that way.
“I’m fighting, competing every day for it,” Gillum said Tuesday after the Gophers’ fourth day of fall camp. “We’ve got a lot of good running backs. I’m just competing because everybody’s good. You’ve just got to take it one day at a time and continue to get better.”
Gillum comes to the Gophers after playing two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. While there, he rushed for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. His numbers were even more impressive during his freshman campaign in 2010, when he tallied 1,297 yards on the ground and found the end zone 16 times.
Given his track record and his status as a junior, Gillum is already the most experienced running back on Minnesota’s roster despite not having played a snap yet for the Gophers. Of the remaining six running backs on the roster, three are redshirt sophomore, one (David Cobb) is a true sophomore and two are true freshmen. True freshman K.J. Maye — who is listed currently as an athlete — has also seen snaps this fall at running back.
With so much youth at the position, it’s the quiet and shy Gillum that has emerged as the front-runner.
“I like to lead by example,” Gillum said. “Do your talking on the field and people will follow.”
Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in total rushing offense last season, averaging 160.0 yards per game. Much of that, however, was thanks to dual threat quarterback MarQueis Gray, who led the Gophers with 966 rushing yards in 2011 and returns for his senior season this year. The Gophers’ top running back, Duane Bennett, picked up 639 yards on the ground, but Minnesota must now find his replacement.
While Cobb and redshirt sophomores Donnell Kirkwood and Devon Wright all saw snaps last year at running back, that trio appears to be playing second fiddle to the newcomer Gillum.
“All those guys right now feel like they’re going to be the starter,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “That’s the way we want them to feel, because they’ll make sure they get ready. When you start relegating yourself, that’s when you start drifting. When you feel like you’re in the hunt of it, you feel like everybody’s chasing you, that’s when you stay on top of your game. So when you’ve got four guys thinking that way, that’s when the competition takes over and they just keep getting better and better.”
At 5-foot-11, 204 pounds, Gillum isn’t Minnesota’s biggest running back. In fact, three other backs have the weight advantage on Gillum, while three are as tall or taller than him.
But Gillum possesses an all-around game that some of the team’s other backs don’t, and that makes him appealing to Minnesota’s coaches. It was the bond with head coach Jerry Kill and the rest of the Gophers’ staff that brought Gillum to Minnesota, he said.
Now those same coaches are hoping that what they saw in Gillum at the junior college level can translate to Division I action.
“He’s got great vision. Just great vision,” Limegrover said. “He’s a tough kid. He’s a kid that he’s not going to go down easy. He’s not going to get tripped up on a foot. He really has a knack for dropping his pads when he needs to. He’s elusive enough, but yet he’s got the power. He really fits our mold.”
Gillum insists he’s faster and stronger than he was at the same time a year ago. He came to the Minnesota campus prior to spring ball, which allowed him to learn the playbook and the offensive schemes well ahead of fall camp.
Now, he’s hit the ground running. And he likely won’t stop running until he’s named the Gophers’ starting running back for their first game of the year Aug. 30 at UNLV.
“I think James is such an unassuming kid. I don’t think he takes anything for granted. I think that’s a great thing as far as the way he approaches things,” Limegrover said. “… Coach Kill’s a guy who feels like competition is going to bring out the very best. When you have that situation where a guy like James Gillum, he’d be crazy if he didn’t think he was going to be that guy starting against UNLV.
“But at the same time, I think he realizes it’s a day in, day out process. The second someone sits back, rests on their laurels, thinks they have something made, there’s somebody else ready to step in.”