In the second game of the 2008 season, the Gophers lost starting running back Duane Bennett to a season ending knee injury. Deleon Eskridge and Shady Salamon, both true freshmen, filled in adequately for the injured Bennett. 2008 ended with a running game in question due to an inexperienced offensive line, true freshmen as primary ball carriers, and the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar. 2009 is a new season with different coordinators, a different offensive scheme, and a more mature offensive line. So, who will become the primary ball carrier for the Gophers?
Duane Bennett (RB, Redshirt Sophomore) - Duane Bennett is the likely candidate to be the primary running back for the Gophers in 2009. Bennett was widely predicted to have a breakout 2008 season prior to his knee injury. Bennett is on the small side at 5'9, 204 pounds, but has decent breakaway speed, has been in the program for three years, and offers solid pass blocking skills. Bennett's success will be determined by two key factors: 1) Will his knee be fully recovered from surgery?, and 2) Will he be able to avoid another major injury?
Deleon Eskridge (RB, Sophomore) - Eskridge led the Gophers in rushing with 678 net yards and 7 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2008. Eskridge had some troubles hanging on to the ball, but exhibited decent open field speed and avoided injury through 184 carries. Eskridge doesn't have "ankle-breaking" lateral movement, but after a year in the weight room could be much improved from 2008.
Shady Salamon (RB, Sophomore) - Could there be a better name for a running back? A graduate of local high school powerhouse Cretin Derham Hall, Salamon demonstrated exceptionally strong fundamental skills for a true freshman, was reported to have a great work ethic, and at times appeared to have the ability to avoid direct contact from defenders. Salamon, like Eskridge, could be much improved from 2008 having spent a year in the weight room.
Kevin Whaley (RB, Redshirt Freshman) - Whaley took a redshirt in 2008 after having been shot in the leg prior to the 2008 season. Whaley may be the fastest of the running back options, but lacks size at 5'9 179 pounds. In the Spring game, Whaley had the most carries of any runners and exhibited shifty lateral movement and impressive speed.
Jay Thomas (RB, Senior) - Jay Thomas was a promising prospect out of high school, but due to two knee injuries requiring surgery may have lost some of his top line speed and ability to make cuts. Additionally, durability has been an issue due to the knee injuries and the after-effects of knee surgery. It is unlikely that Thomas could hold up as the primary back, but may be able to contribute in a limited number of plays per game.
John Hoese (FB, Junior) - At 6'2 230 pounds, Hoese is far from a finesse runner. Hoese runs hard, powerful, and straight ahead. With a renewed emphasis on the power running game, Hoese may get the call for several carries every game. While Hoese was impressive in the 2008 Insight Bowl, time will tell if he can hold up over the course of a season and hang on to the ball when the hits get heavy.
Based solely upon observed past performance and analyzing video, I'll rank the Gophers' running back options as follows:
- Duane Bennett - Bennett has the experience and skills to be the top rusher if he can stay healthy, and if his reconstructed knee is back to full strength.
- John Hoese - The Gophers' new offense will likely provide plenty of opportunities for Hoese to run the ball straight ahead in short yardage and goal line opportunities.
- Kevin Whaley - Having received the majority of the carries in the Spring game, Whaley appears to be at the head of the pack amongst the 2008 recruiting class trio. Whaley will have to demonstrate that he can handle the punishment of Big Ten football.
- Deleon Eskridge - Eskridge could be a serviceable option if he performs at his 2008 level, and may surprise people after having a year to develop in the program.
- Shady Salamon - While he may be near the bottom of this list, don't discount Shady. He's a solid football player who could make valuable contributions to the running game if he has improved from 2008.
- Jay Thomas - Thomas may contribute sporadically throughout games, but don't expect his surgically reconstructed knees to hold up if carries the ball frequently.