MINNEAPOLIS — Donnell Kirkwood isn’t about to tip his team’s hand.
But if the Minnesota running back was doubling as the Gophers’ offensive coordinator against UNLV Thursday, there’s no doubt about what play he’d call first.
“Run it down their throat,” the senior said. “I think it’s tough on any running back when you open a game, that first series, and you don’t touch the ball. You’re like, ‘Crap, I haven’t got the butterflies out yet.’ But when you’re a running back, and the first play of the game, they give you the ball, get your first contact, get your first nick, and I feel like you’ll be good every play after that.”
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First snap, first series, second possession — whenever Kirkwood receives that first touch under the August evening sun pouring over TCF Bank Stadium, it’ll likely be the first of many in 2013.
There is no more experienced skill-position player on the roster than Kirkwood, who played in all 13 of the Gophers’ games last season and rushed for 926 yards on 218 carries. His experience, the return of complementary back Rodrick Williams Jr. and the presence of Philip Nelson at quarterback make for an offense that will rely heavily on its running backs.
“I think that as far as the running back situation right now is Donnell and Robert got experience,” said coach Jerry Kill, who’s never been one to shy away from the run. “Any time you have experience, you learn how to understand the blocking schemes. You understand defenses, and the more repetition you get, the better you get.”
Without MarQueis Gray running the show anymore, Kirkwood and Williams are in line for a whole lot of repetition.
Nelson doesn’t boast the speed and athleticism that made Gray, now a tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, so elusive from the quarterback spot. In 2011 — his final fully healthy season at quarterback — Gray rushed 199 times for 1,090 yards and six touchdowns.
As he exhibited at times during his freshman year and throughout spring and fall camp, Nelson is fully capable of executing the read option and picking up decent chunks of yardage via scrambles. He’ll be counted on to do so at times, no doubt.
But the Gophers also need him to develop as a passer. An effective, halfback-oriented ground game not only helps set up play-action scenarios but puts more bumps and bruises on the guys born to collect them than it does a quarterback Minnesotans hope can guide the program for the next three seasons.
That’s no problem for Kirkwood.
“That’s my bread and butter,” said Kirkwood, who rushed for a team-high six touchdowns last year. “That’s what I came to college to do. But I also like to block a little bit and get Phil going.”
Increased carries and sharper pass blocking have been key emphases during fall practices. The Gophers allowed 21 sacks last year.
That’s a product of several factors — facing a lot of passing downs, a weak link somewhere across the offensive line, quarterbacks’ indecisiveness — but the backs bear responsibility in that department, too.
Williams was particularly ineffective when asked to help create a pocket, so coaches have spent extra time drilling the true sophomore on that aspect of his game.
“We’re working on it,” Kill said when asked about Williams’ progression in the pass-blocking department. “That’s not dodging your question; that’s the truth. He still has work to do.”
While Kirkwood emerged as a constant last season, Williams didn’t play until the final eight games. Now a more slender, sleeker 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, he carried 57 times for 261 yards and a pair of scores.
Junior David Cobb could also figure into the mix. So could true freshman Berkley Edwards, when and if he returns from a high-ankle sprain suffered last week during practice.
Cobb carried just once last year and 11 times as a freshman, but Kill said he’s had an impressive camp.
“They’re all better than they were a year ago,” Kill said of his returning backs. “But again, you’ve got to go prove it on game day.”
That’s true for an entire offense that ranked 108th out of 120 FBS teams last season and rushed for just 3.8 yards per carry (90th nationally). While Gray is gone, the hope is that a variance of ground options can provide more increased production.
UNLV provides the Gophers a good guinea pig. The Runnin’ Rebels return nine starters from a defense that ranked 106th against the run last season.
“There’s three of us,” Kirkwood said. “Might go for three (hundred yards); you never know. The running game this year has definitely developed. I feel like we’re all gonna play a big part in it.”