MINNEAPOLIS — To some, it may just be a number. It’s a nice round one with three zeros, but otherwise there’s nothing special about it.
For others, the number 1,000 means something, especially when talking about rushing yards for a college running back. It’s a milestone that means you’ve achieved something. It’s a goal to shoot for before the season even starts.
Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood falls somewhere between those two camps. The redshirt junior knows the significance of what it means to be a 1,000-yard rusher, but he’s not making it his main focus.
“Everybody keeps talking about this is a 1,000-yard season,” Kirkwood said. “As long as I’m a productive running back, it really doesn’t matter how many yards I get.”
Kirkwood came close to that mark last year, rushing for 926 yards on 218 carries as the Gophers’ primary running back. That was a big jump from his redshirt freshman season when he ran for just 229 yards as the No. 2 back behind Duane Bennett.
For as much of a running team as the Gophers have been, they haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 when Amir Pinnix ran for 1,272 yards. That’s a significant drought, and one that Kirkwood has a realistic shot to snap in 2013.
“It’s always being brought up,” Kirkwood said of the 1,000-yard mark. “It’d be nice, but being productive is better than 1,000 yards. I could rush for 1,000 yards and have six fumbles and 30 missed blocks and it doesn’t even out. For me, I’ve just got to be productive.”
The Gophers hope Kirkwood can be productive, but they’re also hoping he can be a leader. Now that he’s a fixture of the offense, the 5-foot-10, 223-pound Kirkwood isn’t afraid to voice his opinion.
Kirkwood admits he’d rather lead by example than raise his voice, but he’s not afraid to get vocal if the situation calls for it.
“He demands other people’s full effort, and that’s exactly what all the other leaders have to be able to do,” said sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson. “He’s not afraid to get on you once, tell you what’s right. Every time I’ve seen that happen, the person straightened out. I kind of try to be like him when it comes to being a leader.”
In order to reach that 1,000-yard plateau, Kirkwood will once again need the lion’s share of carries for the Gophers offense. A year ago, other running backs combined for 106 carries, while the quarterbacks and wide receivers rushed 193 times. Minnesota has depth at running back behind Kirkwood, and Kill has never been one to give one running back 40 carries a game. Kirkwood’s highest total last year was 28 carries, which happened twice. He only topped 20 carries four times.
The Gophers have seven running backs on their roster this year. Rodrick Williams emerged last year as another option aside from Kirkwood; he carried the ball 57 times for 261 yards after his redshirt was lifted midway through the season. Williams figures to likely be next in line after Kirkwood. James Gillum had 27 carries in 2012, while David Cobb ran just one time. But coaches and teammates have praised Cobb’s progress since spring ball, so he, too, could see his carries increase.
Then there’s freshman Berkley Edwards, brother of former NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards. If Kirkwood and Williams are the stocky, hard-to-tackle backs, Edwards is the speedster of the group. He was a three-star recruit, according to Scout.com, and was also a track star for Chelsea High School in Novi, Mich.
With plenty of options in the backfield, the carries may be distributed among several backs. Kirkwood is just fine with that.
“That’s always nice to keep you healthy during the season. We’ve got the stable for it. The guys are there,” Kirkwood said. “You’ve got Roderick, he’s powerful. You’ve got James, he’s elusive. You’ve got Cobb, who’s all-around everything. Then you’ve got Berkley coming in, who’s just speed on the outside. That’ll be great if everybody can touch the ball. It’ll keep everybody healthy.”
There’s no doubt about it, though, that Kirkwood will be the Gophers’ go-to option in the backfield. If he can stay healthy, which he did last year, he could approach that elusive 1,000-yard mark.
Not that Kirkwood — of the Gophers — are too concerned with numbers.
“I think Donnell, he’s the lead horse, but there’s two or three more guys back there that we’ve never been, ‘Hey, give it to one guy 40 times.’ It’s never been Coach Kill’s philosophy,” said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. “That’s the way you’ve kind of got to look at it and you keep those guys involved. That’s really where we want to be. Donnell, he’s the lead dog, that’s for sure.”