While plenty of attention has been paid by the mainstream media, local fans and pundits to the purportedly increased talent level at wide receiver, one area that has gone relatively uncovered is what Minnesota's running game will look like in 2008.
Those who enjoyed a traditional running attack under Glen Mason were likely scratching their heads in 2007. Minnesota's leading rusher was quarterback Adam Weber. The running game was based more on deception and fakes then pulling offensive lineman.
The 2007 Gophers ran almost exclusively from the shotgun, and when they needed to convert on a third or fourth and one, the Gophers were abysmal. No runner really stood out. Amir Pinnix was eventually benched after having difficulty holding onto the ball. Jay Thomas was injured and Duane Bennett wasn't overly impressive either.
The Gophers finished 7th in the Big Ten in rushing in 2007, which marked a significant step back from the Mason era. With new faces and relative inexperience on the offensive line, and still without a proven runner to line up behind next to Weber, the Gophers' 2008 running game will likely continue to be a work in progress.
Bennett, a sophomore, is clearly poised to be the #1 back as 2008 begins Saturday. He played in 10 games last season and racked up a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry. Thomas, along with newcomers Shady Salamon and DeLeon Eskridge will be in the wings to assist, or take over for Bennett. I expect a four-man rotation at running back to beigin the year. So, here's a quick bio of each of the potential contributors.
Shady Salamon, Freshman, St. Paul, Minn. -- Owner of the best name of the group, Salamon picked Minnesota over Missouri. A 3-star Rivals all-purpose back, Salamon is described by ESPN Insider as "a quick cutting, decisive, straight-lined back that can run north and south with authority. There is no hesitation in his style and he is downhill all the way. Is at his best deep in the backfield when he can attack the line of scrimmage with his shoulders square. He is a well-built RB with solid play strength." Salamon has received positive reviews out of camp, but his athleticism has been questioned by scouts.
Duane Bennett, Sophomore, Fairview Heights, Ill. -- Duane (pronounced (Do-on) proved that he could be a serviceable back as a freshman last season. He caught 18 balls out of the backfield (a number that should grow in 2008). Bennett is the clear-cut #1 as the season begins. A Glen Mason recruit, Bennett isn't considered a "spread back," but Brewster is confident Bennett will take strides in 2008: "No question right now our bell cow is Duane Bennett," Brewster said. "The tailback has to be the most physically tough football player on your team. He has to be a guy in the fourth quarter that we can hand the ball off to and kill the clock. (Bennett) has really accepted the challenge. I'm telling you, the kid's investment in the program and in the conditioning part of it has been phenomenal." I'm assuming being the bell cow is a positive thing!
DeLeon Eskridge, Freshman, San Mateo, Calif. -- A three star Rivals running back, Eskridge had offers Nebraska and Washington, among others, but picked the opportunity available at Minnesota. Recruited as an athlete by Nebraska, Eskridge seems to be line to play tailback for Minnesota. ESPN Insider says Eskridge is built like a sprinter, is a smooth runner who is light and quick on his feet and has good hands to catch passes ot of the backfield. If I were to pick a surprise RB to emerge in 2008, it'd be Eskridge, who might have the best make-up to succeed in the spread.
Jay Thomas, Junior, Oakdale, Minn. -- Of the quartet, Thomas is easily the biggest question mark. He came to Minnesota as a Rivals 3-star recuit and the 18th most coveted running back in the country. But his career has been riddled with devastating injuries. As a freshman in 2005, Thomas tore an ACL. He played sparingly as a redshirt freshman a year later, and then blew out his other knee during Minnesota's loss to North Dakota State last year. Brewster's plan for Thomas seems to be to bring him along slowly, reports the Star Tribune. And that's probably a good idea, considering he was tentative upon his return last season. You'll be able to tell early on if Thomas has recovered mentally and physically from his latest knee injury. Is he tentative on returns? Does he hit the holes hard? If he's all the way back, he too could emerge as the go-to running back the Gophers need.