With the loss of starting tailback, Duane Bennett, what does the Gopher backfield look like for the rest of 2008 and heading into 2009?
For the rest of this season, you know the names. Shady Salamon, DeLeon Eskridge and Jay Thomas. Those three guys will be the primary recipients of the ball for the rest of 2008. Reports are that a third freshman and probably the most heavily recruited of the bunch, Kevin Whaley, is 100% healthy but he has yet to see the field this year. His name has not yet appeared on a depth chart so until then I'm not expecting to see him this year.
The fact that Shady Salamon got the carries last week when Bennett went down should tell us who will get the bulk of the carries until proven otherwise. The true freshman has been receiving praise for his maturity and preparedness which should make him a less risky option than sticking a typical freshman RB into the start role.
The Pioneer Press reported that "Brewster called Salamon, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate, the most mature freshman he has ever met."
Salamon did not carry the ball in week one but stepped in nicely in week two with 64 yards on 12 carries. He seemed to run with some power and the compact compact freshman was decisive when choosing his holes to run through.
Shady is not as quick or elusive as Bennett, but that doesn't concern me. For me there are two significant questions surrounding Salamon and they both involve the passing game. Can he pass block and can he catch the ball out of the backfield. I haven't seen nearly enough to answer that, but I think we are fortunate that he'll have an FCS level game to get acclimated.
Behind Salamon it is a fight between Jay Thomas and DeLeon Eskridge. We'll likely see both of these backs backing up Salamon, but that doesn't make for a very sexy post.
Jay Thomas is the more experienced back and that should give him a slight edge in the fight for playing time, especially when it comes to pass blocking. The junior earned 40 carries last year 22 of which came in his start at Northwestern where he notched his first and only 100 yard game. Thomas is not a sexy back and we know what we are going to get with him, but being a third year player will certainly give the coaches more conifedence to put him in. He will likely not be your big play back, but he'll be adequate to protect and make some catches out of the backfield.
The one back who could be the most dynamic of the group is another true freshman. DeLeon Eskridge (pictured right) was incredibly productive out west in San Mateo, CA. As a junior he rushed for 1,461 yards with a 10.3 yd/carry and 26 total touchdowns. In his senior year he did not amas the same yards but he did break Lynn Swan's school record for career touchdowns. He has not made his mark on the Gopher's program on his first 4 carries, but given more of an opportunity I expect that Eskridge has some big play ability in those legs. Of the three backs I believe that Eskridge is probably our best option out of the backfield as his high school stats indicate that he notched several big plays receiving.
The 2008 running game should be in adequate hands, but none of the three stand out as game changing backs that you can build an offense around. With Salamon, Thomas and Eskridge we will be OK but the legs of our quarterback will once again be a greater percentage of our rushing attack than it should be. There is hope for Gopher fans that we will once again produce an NFL caliber rusher like we have been used to seeing in recent years.
Tim Brewster has received verbal commitments from two highly recruited, four-star backs out of Texas. Both are potential game changers who will add a new dimension to the Spread Coast. Many of you are aware by now that we have verbal commitments from Eric Stephens of Mansfield, TX (Timberview) and Hasan Lipscomb of Houston (Cypress Ridge). I can't express how excited I am to see both of these backs who bring different skill sets to the program.
If I were putting money down now, Hasan Lipscomb (pictured right) is going to be the game changing, workhorse back that will keep Big Ten defensive coordinators awake at night. Listed at 5'10", 200 lbs, he has good size and reportedly has track speed as he runs a sub 4.4 second 40. He is already used to sharing the backfield with another star as his quarterback, Russell Shepard is an LSU com
mit and the #1 dual threat QB in the nation. Despite Shepard taking away carries and yards, Lipscomb has still managed to rack up over 2,600 yards and 41 touchdowns over his career.
ESPN Insider - "Follows his blocks well and runs with good vision. Shows good lateral quickness and outside speed stretching the zone run and turning the corner."
Thus far in 2008 Lipscomb has 166 yards and five touchdowns as Cypress Ridge has limped out to a 1-1 start. My only fear with Lipscomb is that he will receive an offer from LSU or another major program and he will change his mind. Assuming he ends up in maroon and gold, I believe he'll be a star.
The other four star commit, is Eric Stephens. Stephens has received incredible praise from ESPN Insider and is described as a perfect fit for a spread offense.
...elusive back with the skills to shine in a spread offense. Shorter frame but has a sturdy, strong body. Attacks the line of scrimmage with great burst and is a very sudden, quick-footed runner through the initial traffic. Avoids defenders with excellent lateral quickness and loose hips. Slips through the small cutback creases showing good body control and vision. Ability to generate top-speed within just a few steps allows him to run with deceptive power and break through high arm tackles. Squares up his shoulder pads very quickly out of his cuts and can be very slippery to wrap up on contact. Keeps his legs churning and fights for extra yards. Elusive in space with his stop-start quickness and sharp lateral cuts.
Stephens will fight for a ton of playing time with Lipscomb but I expect he will be a great change of pace guy who will be a dominant threat out of the backfield. If Lipscomb doesn't grow into the back I anticipate he will be then the door will be wide open for Stephens to step through and be the guy who carries the load.
The loss of Bennett is disappointing and the 2008 rushing game will be OK. But the future is bright and these Texas running backs are going to really make a difference in this offense.