Gopher Football 2013 Positional Preview: Running Back- Upgrade/Downgrade?

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Will the running backs be better or worse this season than in 2012? It's a simple question, a baby could answer it.

I will go to my grave believing that firing Glen Mason after the 2006 season was the right move, and one of the few things done by Joel Maturi you can say that about. In his final season in 2006, a year that resulted in a 6-7 record with three B1G wins and yet another mediocre bowl (though just to mix it up, the Gophers DIDN'T win all four of their non-conference games because Mase was forced encouraged to schedule an actual BCS conference opponent amongst his three other cupcakes. The result was a Cal team led by DeSean Jackson and Marshawn Lynch crushing the Gophs 42-17. This was also the same year Minnesota survived 10-9 against NDSU), Mason capped it off by blowing a massive lead to Texas Tech and The Pirate Mike Leach, and was fired almost immediately after. Say what you will about Mase, but the man could orchestrate a running game, and Minnesota has been trying to duplicate or replicate the success he had rushing the football ever since.

His final season saw the team rush for 2007 yards at 4.3 yards per carry and 25 rushing TD's, numbers that haven't been eclipsed since (in 2007 the rushing attacked managed a 4.5 avg but have only cracked 4.0 once since at 4.1 in 2011). The 2012 rushing numbers don't compare to that 2006 season, but it was the highest yardage total (1975 yards) since then, and for the third year in a row the team rushed for only 14 TD's. They ranked just about league-average at 7th in the B1G in rushing yards per game (151.9), but the YPC (3.8) and TD's were both only 9th in the conference. They just missed having the first 1000 yard rusher since Amir Pinnix in- you guessed it!- 2006 as Donnell "Kirkland" Kirkwood rushed for 218 carries/926 yards/4.2 avg/6 TD's, and was the only Gopher with more than 72 carries. Departed QB/WR MarQueis Gray was the second leading rusher (72/445/5.4/5) while true freshman Roderick Williams was second amongst running backs (57/267/4.6/2) despite only appearing in the final eight games of the season. No other back had more than 100 yards rushing the entire season.

2013 TDG
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2013 Gopher Football Previews
* Quarterback Upgrade/Downgrade
* The Year 3/4 Turn
* Defensive Depth Chart Speculation
* Looking at Gopher Offensive Line

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* 2012 Running Backs Upgrade/Downgrade

The Gophers, and especially Kirkwood, did the bulk of their damage in eight of 13 games, but struggled mightily vs Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, and Michigan State. The Iowa game was a straight debacle, but the other four against four of the best in the B1G were in the second half of the season when top receiver AJ Barker was out, true frosh Philip Nelson was in at quarterback, and the offensive line was pretty much in shambles. Without a go-to receiver, a rushing threat at QB like Gray, and with a patch-work offensive line, the good teams were able to focus on shutting down Kirkwood and the rushing attack, and that's exactly what happened. The only positives in the 2nd half of the regular season were torching Purdue thanks to a great gameplan that Danny Hope's Mustache couldn't/wouldn't/refused to adjust to (Nelson had a field day throwing and Kirwood rushed for 134), and, well, Iliinois being Illinois (Kirkwood had a season-high 152 and 2 scores).

The bowl game loss to Texas Tech- MOAR MARYLAND-I!- was not only an encouraging sign for the end of the 2012 season, but hopefully a sign of things to come for 2013. They ran for 222 net yards and 2 scores at 4.1 YPC as Kirkwood (19/77/4.1/1), Williams (12/60/5/1) and Gray (11/59/5.4) had a big evening. Perhaps the most telling stat of all though was the 54 carries- a sign Minnesota was able to control the tempo and do what they wanted, something that definitely didn't happen in those five bad losses we spoke of earlier. Jerry Kill and OC Matt Limegrover want to run, and run a lot- at their most successful in their previous stops, their offense has ran the ball more than 60% of the time, setting up a highly efficient passing game when the defense cheats up. We have yet to see the running game perform as Kill and Limegrover want it to, but 2013 could be the season it starts to take shape. As Matt said in his excellent piece on Monday about the Year 3/4 Turn, Kill and staff are entering year #3, and this is often the season things start to happen if they're going to happen at all. Look at Kill's numbers from his Northern Illinois team, and they took a big upswing from year two in 2009 to year three in 2010. Gopher fans should be pretty familiar with that rushing offense in 2010 as they rolled over the Gophers for 297 yards at 10 YARDS PER CARRY, and while I'm not expecting Minnesota's 2013 rushing offense to duplicate Northern Illinois' 2010 numbers, there's still the potential for some major steps forward.

Let's begin with everything else that will factor into the running backs improving on 2012 with the most important singular thing for the 2013 season: the health of the offensive line. While you could say "well yeah duh this is true for EVERY team" Minnesota has seen their line decimated by injuries in Kill's first two seasons. While it's given a lot of returning players will have plenty of experience and starts, if we want to see an improvement in the running game and from the running backs, a cohesive offensive line that can stay healthy is vital. GN had a good preview last week, and expect much more from Matt as our O-line and stats analysis guru on this throughout the season. If the o-line is healthy, it greatly improves the chances of sophomore QB Philip Nelson having a good season, as GN explains in his QB Upgrade/Downgrade post. If Nelson gets time to throw and complete passes at a higher percentage, that only makes the running game that much more dangerous.

I'll leave the X's and O's and schemes to those on the site better qualified to speak to it, but just know this is a coaching staff that WANTS to run the ball. A lot. In that 2010 NIU season when they average 38 points, 450 yards per game, 260 on the ground and a whopping 42 rushing TD's (yeah that's just crazy) the team ran 910 plays; 581 one of them, or 63.8%, were rushes. In 2012, the Gophers ran 847 plays, 517 of which (or 61%) were rushes. Certainly the production and efficiency aren't where they need to be yet, but we're already seeing how much Kill and Co want to run the ball. And while it's a bit troubling that the coaches really only trusted two running backs- Kirkwood and Roderick- last season, it's not that much different than 2010 when Spann had 258 carries, QB Chandler Harnish was second with 137, and after that nobody else had more than 38 carries for the entire year.

For 2013, we already know the coaches love Kirkwood and Williams, but will anyone else push them for carries? Only one back doesn't return from a season ago, as Devon Wright is being moved to slot receiver, so will another year of experience help anyone break through? Junior David Cobb remains the biggest boom or bust candidate on the roster, though thus far he's been all bust. A very late signing from Killeen, TX in Kill's first recruiting class, Cobb had a strong fall camp with a few big runs, but only carried 10 times for 57 yards. Last year, a noticeably larger Cobb packed on about 15 pounds of muscle and again looked the part in the spring and summer, yet managed one lousy carry for 8 yards and 1 catch for 5 yards in 2012. Spring 2013 was more of the same, with coaches talking about how impressed they were with his performance, and at 225 pounds he certainly LOOKS the part of a quality B1G back. But at this point it's hard not to take a "believe it when I see it" approach with Cobb. It wouldn't surprise me if he finally did break out and take carries from Roderick yet I'd feel the same if he spends another season doing nothing but standing on the sidelines.

Senior James Gillum was supposed to be the running game savior a season ago as a highly touted JUCO transfer, and started the season well enough with 14 carries for 51 yards and a score in the opener vs UNLV. But he fell out of favor quickly, carrying just 9 times for 9 yards in the next two games and finished with 8 DNP's in the final 10 games, including the bowl game. He still factored into the rotation in the spring, but at this point, any contribution from Gillum in 2013 would be considered a plus. Halfback/slot back KJ Maye also showed some promise to start last season with 17 carries for 57 yards and 11 catches for another 49 yards in the opener, but his production dropped significantly after that. Only a true sophomore in 2013, Maye still has potential as a versatile weapon out of the slot and on screens and sweeps, but isn't likely to be a threat between the tackles. Annnnndddd that's it for running backs who registered a carry in 2012 who are returning for 2013. RS Jr Cole Banham has run well in the spring and on scout teams, but is still yet to register an official carry, and RS Soph JoJuan Harper redshirted last season after transferring from ND College of Sciences.

Which leaves us with the one newcomer to the group, and the one player with the opportunity to make the largest impact. True freshman Berkley Edwards arrives this fall, and we all hope he's the one-cut speed runner the program has lacked since the Mason Era. A three star recruit from the state of Michigan whose dad Stan and older brother Braylon both played college ball at Michigan and later in the pros, and he looks perfect suitly to star in this offense. From Matt's Signing Day writeup:

Edward's speed is an asset currently missing from the current stable of Gopher running backs. Considering the staff wants to improve the explosiveness and athleticism on offense across the board (and turn 15 yard scampers out of the Maryland-I into home runs), Berkley's chances of seeing the field in 2013 are high. His work ethic and burning desire to live up to the family legacy will only aid in that quest.

While the expectations for Edwards are high, if for some reason he fails, it doesn't mean the running game will too. Kirkwood and Williams have already proven they can carry the load, Nelson will be a year older, and the offensive line should be healthier and more cohesive. If Berkley can be the change-of-pace home run hitter everyone's hoping for, then this offense should take some major steps forward. If he doesn't, barring disaster it should still be an improvement over last season. If it's going to be worse, it means the O-line struggles again to stay healthy, Nelson doesn't have the time or confidence to complete passes, and once again a decent defense can zero in on the running game and shut it down. Besides his leadership, that's the one thing that will really be missed with Q gone- his ability to make something out of nothing running the football, and be a threat for a big play every time he lined up under/behind center. Nelson has the potential to be a much better and more accurate passer, but he (like most QB's) lack Q's running and athletic ability. Still, the pieces are here for an improved running game even without Q.

Oh, and

MOAR MARYLAND-I!

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