Offseason Position Preview: Running Backs

Go Gophers!
Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 926 yards in 2012.

Go Gophers!
Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 926 yards in 2012.
Go Gophers!

July 29, 2013

OVERVIEW
In 2012, the Gophers came close to having a 1,000-yard rusher in returning junior Donnell Kirkwood. His 926-yard total was the highest by any Minnesota running back since Amir Pinnix rushed for 1,272 yards in 2006.

“Last year I never would have thought Kirkwood would have got that close going into fall camp,” running backs coach Brian Anderson said. “That’s what’s so great about playing the game, seeing how guys mature, seeing how they handle things. For coaches, it’s exciting to see a guy get 1,000 yards, but at the end of the day, it comes down to winning. …But as a whole, if we do well as a football team, there’s a good chance someone’s probably going to get close to 1,000 yards.”

With improvement among the other backs, and a dynamic freshman coming in, the distribution of rushes may not be quite as lopsided this season. But as Anderson said, if the team does well, someone may still reach 1,000 yards.

FOCUS ON: Donnell Kirkwood
Kirkwood seized an opportunity last season when the Gophers entered fall camp with no clear depth chart. He emerged as the No. 1 option in the backfield, and continued to lead Minnesota's running attack throughout the season.

“His growth has been amazing to see--where he’s at now compared to when we first got here,” Anderson said. “His maturity level, his attention to detail has been getting better as we speak.”

Kirkwood took 218 of the Gophers’ 517 total carries in 2012. He may once again be the team’s top back, but he is also trying to help his teammates get in a better position to share some of the load.

“He’s up front and honest with them and talks about the things that he went through to get to the point where he’s at right now, as far as learning in football, being attentive in meetings, understanding what’s going on on the practice field, paying attention to detail on the practice field,” Anderson said. “He’s been able to kind of mentor them on where he was at and where he’s trying to get to. …I feel pleased with where he’s at, not just on the field, but off the field also.”

KEY RETURNERS
Like Kirkwood, sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. has a physical running style. He first saw the field in the sixth game of his true freshman campaign, and played the remaining games of the season.

“He showed flashes of what he can do,” Anderson said. “He had a good spring. He’s got to continue to do the little things and you’ll see his development continue.”

Juniors Cole Banham and David Cobb also return, both having taken a significant amount of carries during the spring. The two have almost an opposite running style from Kirkwood and Williams.

“They’re athletic guys who’ll make you miss,” Anderson. “Cobb’s a little bit of a combination of both, because he can pound a little bit and then also has good vision to make guys miss. Cole’s more of that dynamic, vertical cut, make a guy miss and hit the big home run play. They all complement each other. I thought those guys did a good job this spring and really took advantage of their opportunities. It’s going to be a dog race when fall camp starts.”

Senior James Gillum, who played in five games last year, rounds out the returning group.

In addition to the differing running styles, Anderson said the running backs’ personalities also complement each other. He is looking forward to having them all together in the fall.

NEW FACES TO WATCH
Speedy freshman Berkley Edwards, Rivals.com’s No. 13 prospect in the state of Michigan, comes to the Gophers with a legitimate chance to crack the lineup in his first season. But it is still too early to say what the coaches will decide to do with him during his first season.

“He’s got summer and he’s got fall camp,” Anderson said. “It’s going to take some time. But he’s got a great bloodline. He’s got great speed. So it’s there. Now it’s how he matures and how he learns and then getting those opportunities in practice to continue to get better every day at what we do and adjust to the college game.”

Sophomore transfer JoJuan Harper, who redshirted last year, is also eligible to compete.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
“I continue to talk to them about becoming a better football player, as far as being in the classroom, watching video on your own and really doing a good job of learning what the offensive line’s doing and understanding the blocking schemes,” Anderson said of his hopes for the offseason. “That in itself can help you become a better football player. Being in the classroom on their own, watching video and taking their football IQ to a different level. I think that’s always a challenge for coaches when you can’t be around them in the summer time and meet with them. …Then you get an idea when fall camp starts, because once you start your meetings you really have an idea of who’s really taking their game to another level, because they can answer questions.”