Holy cow, the Gophers' rushing attack was just deplorable in 2009. A starter returning from an ACL tear, an ineffective offensive line, and frankly ridiculous play-calling by Jedd Fisch (and yes, I'm blaming him at every opportunity I get because it's well-deserved) led to another 11th-ranked rushing offense in the Big Ten for the Gophers. 68 rushing first downs, 97.6 ypg, 13 TDs, and the longest run of the year was.........TWENTY-NINE YARDS (points for you if you know who it was and when it happened, leave it in the comments). It can't help but get better, uh, right?
The Starters - Duane Bennett (RS Junior) and DeLeon Eskridge (Junior) - I'm listing these guys as the returning starters because one of them will be the starter for 2010, at least at the beginning of the year, but it's 50/50 as to who it will be.
Bennett, obviously, was returning from the torn ACL last year and his play reflected that. He played in all games but only gained 395 yards and tallied 6 TDs. He's been here forever, and will be here in 2011 as well. I would expect Bennett to show full recovery from his injury and be a signficantly improved runner.
As for Eskridge, he got slightly under 6 attempts per game in 2009, gaining 259 yards and 3 TDs. No reports on whether HE tore his ACL in 2008 and was slow in recovering like Bennett.
The Others - R.J. Buckner (Senior), Shady Salamon (Junior) - All you need to know: these guys' collective 2009 stats: the null set. Rumblings are that Salamon might move to the defensive backfield for 2010. I wouldn't expect much contribution from either of these guys outside of special teams.
The "Non-Running Back" Running Back - MarQueis Gray - Gray had 44 rushes for 243 yards last year, not counting the postseason where his rushing was hit and miss (I'd prefer not to discuss it). I would expect his influence to increase in 2010, as well as his touches. To reiterate from the Quarterbacks analysis (link above), he is the most dangerous player on the team, and needs to touch the ball, on plays called for him, at least 15-20 times a game in 2010.
The New Guys - Lamonte Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood, and Devon Wright - As you can see above, Minnesota has just about zero depth at the RB spot, so I would expect at least two of these guys to get their redshirts burnt during or before the South Dakota game. Edwards, a Woodbury, MN product, is a tall, strong runner, who I heard Justin Conzemius declare as an Adrian Peterson clone on KFAN this past Friday (uh, that's flattering to Edwards, but patently ridiculous). My thoughts, however, instantly turned to just-graduated Michigan RB Brandon Minor, who had the exact same measurables as Edwards, and unfortunately was injured for about 97% of his college career. Why? Upright runner, decided to run through instead of around runners. I've read similar scouting reports about Edwards. I hope he doesn't end up having a similar career to Minor.
As for Kirkwood and Wright, both are from Florida and both are speedsters. Kirkwood, who has a close friend who you might remember Facebook flirted with the Gophers before signing for Ohio State last week, is also notable for another reason in Minnesota's 2010 class: he's the only commit under six foot tall (5'9").
The jury is out on all three of these guys, of course, until fall camp starts. However, one or two of them has to play this year with the losses of Jay Thomas (albeit, special teams), as well as Kevin Whaley (stupidity).
Overall Grade - C-. Of course, a running back's grade will always be somewhat determined by things beyond his control: the offensive line's blocking, the quarterback's ability to stretch the field to move linebackers and safeties off the line, and his offensive coordinator's ability to not call plays like he is playing Super Tecmo Bowl at 3am after drinking a case of Tahitian Treat and a six pack of Texas Donuts.
The returning players are experienced but are not spectacular. On the other hand, the youngsters have the potential to be spectacular, but have zero experience. Further, a couple of the freshmen will have to play this year, and might get exposed if the offensive line doesn't take quantum steps of improvement. All in all, there is the chance the rushing attack could significantly improve, but an increase from worst in the conference to about 120-130 yards per game (and how about one or two rushes over 50 yards? Kthx) is a reasonable expectation for 2010.