Gophers positional preview: Running backs

In 2013, David Cobb became the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 by finishing with 1,202 yards.

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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): 7

Projected starter: David Cobb (senior)

Key backups: Donnell Kirkwood (redshirt senior), Rodrick Williams Jr. (junior), Berkley Edwards (redshirt freshman)

The breakdown: At the beginning of fall camp last year, Cobb was the Gophers’ third-string running back. By the end of the 2013 season he was not only Minnesota’s starting running back but also became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 by finishing with 1,202 yards. Along with averaging 5.1 yards per carry, Cobb also found the end zone seven times to lead all Gophers running backs. His breakout year as a junior was particularly surprising given that Cobb had just one total carry during the 2012 season, when he was buried on the depth chart.

But Minnesota had plenty of depth behind Cobb this past year, as Kirkwood and Williams were rotated in and out throughout the season. Kirkwood made just one start while Williams started six games. Both backs, however, missed two games each with injuries, which opened the door for Cobb to grab the starting job. Together, that trio helped Minnesota finish fifth in the Big Ten in rushing average last year, gaining 195.2 yards per game.

Edwards could see some time as a backup this year and brings game-changing speed that the other backs don’t have. The redshirt freshman from Novi, Mich., is the younger brother of former NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards. After redshirting last year, Edwards was impressive in spring ball. He broke off a 33-yard touchdown run in the Gophers’ spring game, the only touchdown of the day, and also had several other long runs throughout camp. While Cobb, Williams and Kirkwood are all similar in size, the 185-pound Edwards should off a chance of pace out of the backfield.

The one big question mark at running back is whether top recruit Jeff Jones will be eligible to compete this fall. The Minneapolis Washburn standout, arguably one of the top recruits in the state, opted to stay home and play for the Gophers. However, Jones still needs to get his grades up in order to qualify. If he is eligible, it’s still possible that he could redshirt this year, but his potential is intriguing.

Gophers positional previews

Best position battle: If Cobb does indeed receive the majority of the carries at tailback, the best battle will likely be for whichever back is No. 2 on the depth chart. Both Williams and Kirkwood have shown that they can handle the starting role, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the depth chart fluctuate throughout the season.

Kirkwood was Minnesota’s starting running back for 13 games in 2012. He rushed for 926 yards, falling just short of surpassing the 1,000-yard mark. But the 5-foot-10, 206-pound Kirkwood saw his carries drop from 218 in 2012 to just 52 as a junior last year. He averaged just 2.3 yards per carry during a disappointing season and rushed for 30 or more yards just once all year.

Williams saw his carries diminish late in the season after Cobb took over the starting role. He didn’t carry the ball at all after Oct. 5 against Michigan, when he gained 33 yards on eight carries. Though he played on special teams late in the year, Williams was a non-factor in the rushing game in the last month. He’ll need a strong fall camp to reemerge as the No. 2 option behind Cobb.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin, 2. Nebraska, 3. Michigan State

Badgers running back Melvin Gordon could have left a year early for the NFL but decided to return to Wisconsin for his redshirt junior year. In 2013, he and James White teamed up to rush for over 3,000 yards. With White gone, Gordon and sophomore Corey Clement could reign as the Big Ten’s best rushing duo after Clement rushed for 547 yards as a freshman.

Nebraska senior Ameer Abdullah is one of the most dangerous running backs in the Big Ten. As a junior, Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards and surpassed the 100-yard mark in 11 of 13 games. That included Nebraska’s game against Minnesota in which Abdullah had 165 yards on 19 carries. During his junior year, Abdullah also caught 26 passes out of the backfield as one of the Big Ten’s more versatile backs.

There are plenty of talented upperclassmen running backs in the Big Ten, and Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford ranks right up there with the best. As a junior he rushed for 1,422 yards and a Big Ten-best 18 touchdowns.

Head coach Jerry Kill says: "I think David’s gonna do a good job, but we’re good at running back. We’ve got some flexibility.  . . . I think that our job is to get the right people the football, and we’ve got to do a better job of that, and we’ve got a good plan."

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