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Minnesota Gopher Football 2011 Preview: Running Backs- Upgrade/Downgrade

2006. That's the last time the Gophers had a 1,000 yard rusher or ran for more than 2,000 yards as a team. Amir Pinnix ran for 1272 yards and 10 TD's, and the team amassed 2,007 yards at 4.3 yards per carry and scored 25 rushing TD's. Then Glen Mason was fired, and the production of the running game dropped- and in 2009 practically disappeared- during the four years of the Tim Brewster Era. 2007 showed only a slight drop in production from 2006 under new OC Mike Dunbar's spread system, but it slumped in 2008, and when Dunbar was fired and Jedd Fisch replaced him in 2009, it turned into a trav-sham-a-mockery of epic proportions: the Goph's leading rusher had 395 yards (seriously), and the team ran for just 1,293 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns at an average of 3.0 yards per carry. Minnesota wasn't just dead last in the Big Ten, they finished 111 out of 120 D1 teams that year.

In 2010 Fisch and his fancy pants offense left for Seattle, and he was replaced by Jeff Horton, who promised a return to a run-oriented offense. The results were...well not great, but better than 2009 (I know, I know it's not much of a barometer). The Gophers finished 10th of 11 Big Ten teams at just 135.5 rush yards per game while scoring just 14 TD's and only averaged 3.6 yards per carry, but the 1623 yards in just 12 games were the best total since 2007. Deleon Eskridge's team leading 746 yards were the most for a Gopher player since Pinnix's 2006 campaign (can you guess which Gopher had the second highest single season rushing total since 2006?), which is kind of sad, but hey, it's an accomplishment!

Most of Eskridge's yardage was piled up from the middle of the season on as starter Duane Bennett was hurt (again) and promising true freshman Donnell Kirkwood also played just four games due to injury. Those were the only three halfbacks on the 2010 roster who carried the football- and again, Kirkwood only played in FOUR GAMES! Depth was a wee bit lacking as there were a couple of true freshman who perhaps could have contributed but kept their redshirts.

As you may have heard, Jerry Kill and his run-oriented system offense were hired this offseason to replace Brewster and interim coach Horton, and I'd be shocked if Minnesota doesn't beat their 2010 rushing numbers with ease this season. I'm not ready to predict a 1,000 yard back or a return to the top of the Big Ten rushing leaders in the Barber/Maroney/Eslinger heyday just yet, but I think 2,000 yards as a team is within reach and at worst this team should be middle of the pack in the Big Ten in rushing.

Still, could the Gophers' running game be better, but the running backs be worse? What if Minnesota's leading rusher in 2011 isn't a running back? Hmmm...

It's VERY possible the Gophers' leading rusher in 2011 will be quarterback MarQueis Gray, and there's a few reasons for this. First, Gray an electric runner with good speed and incredible athleticism for a man of his size (6'4 and now listed at 245 pounds. Holy schnikes!). He was one of the top dual-threat QB recruits in the country back in 2008, and he was MADE to run this kind of offense.

Second, there's a precedent here for both a Jerry Kill offense at a new school and the Gophers with a new coach. In Kill's first season at Northern Illinois in 2008, inexperienced QB Chandler Harnish led the Huskies in rushing attempts (118), yards (608), and was second in rushing touchdowns (4). It also happened here the last time Minnesota had a new coach and a new offense: we asked earlier which Gopher had the second best rushing season since 2006? It was QB Adam Weber, who in 2007 in his first year as a starter led the Gophers in rushing attempts (146), yards (736), and tied for rushing TD's (5) in Dunbar's spread. Gray is a better athlete and runner than either Harnish or Weber, so if those two are capable of leading their teams in rushing, it's not going out on much of a limb to suggest Q could do the same.

The last reason the team's leading rusher may not be a running back is because there doesn't look to be a feature back on the 2011 roster. Eskridge left the team and enrolled at San Jose State, so the team's leading rusher from last year will not return. That leaves plenty of opportunity, and it's likely at least five of the seven running backs on the roster will be given the chance to tote the rock. As we talked about last Friday in the post about what the 2011 offense could look like, unless the team has an obvious bell cow (like Chad Spann was for NIU last year- 258 carries for 1388 yards and 22 TD's. Harnish was next in carries at 137, and no one else had more than 40) Kill and Limegrover will spread the carries around. In 2008, as mentioned, the QB Harnish led in carries with just 118, and five backs had at least 39 and three of them with at least 50.

Bennett is back as a senior, and he's listed as the week 1 starter. He's by far the most experienced back on the roster and one of the most talented, but he's been unable to stay healthy for a full season since his freshman year. He runs well, blocks well, and catches well out of the backfield and has shown glimpses (as a freshman in 2007, and early 2008 and 2010) of being a feature back, but it's just never panned out. Is this the year? Kill has raved about his leadership, and that's important for what is a VERY young group of backs behind him. No other seniors, no juniors, not even a sophomore on the roster at running back. The team has some talented runners but they're woefully short on experience, although as Kill has said, in a new offense with new coaches he considers everybody a rookie.

For the USC game, #2 on the depth chart is redshirt freshmen Lamonte Edwards, a local product from Woodbury high school who has a powerful build at 6'2 and more than 210 pounds. The coaches love his blend of size and speed and he looked pretty good at times running between the tackles in fall camp. He looks to have the complete package, but he's yet to seize the feature role.

Next up is Kirkwood, who's season ending injury got him a medical redshirt from the NCAA, so he'll get to do his freshman year all over again without losing a year of eligibility. Kirkwood is a tough, downhill runner with good power and burst, which should suit this offense well. He missed quite a bit of camp with injury, but if the coaches have him third on the depth chart, he must be ready to go.

True freshman David Cobb was the talk of fall camp with some big runs and spectacular plays. Of course, as a kid fresh out of high school, he also had his share of mistakes too. He looked like the best runner in camp, and he looks great with the ball in his hands. But he starts this far down the depth chart because he's still learning assignments and blocking and all of the other things that go into being a successful running back besides, well, running with the football. Don't be surprised if Cobb is the best back on the team by season's end.

Redshirt frosh Devon Wright is the fifth guy who could (and likely will) see some carries this fall. Wright is a speedster from Florida, and while he might be the fastest back on the team, he's been unable to move up the depth chart much so far. That can all change with one good game, and all he needs is a chance.

So there's at least five guys who will be competing for carries this fall, and any one of them has a chance to be THE guy. I predict none of them will lead the Gophers in rushing, and that we may not see one of the backs distinguish himself from the group until midseason or later (unless Bennett stays healthy. And that's one big IF), and none of them may surpass Eskridge's team highs of 746 yards or 7 rushing TD's from last year. However, I can almost guarantee our top rushers will have a much better average than Eskridge's 3.6 yards per carry, and the running game as a whole should be a major improvement over what we saw last year- and any year- under Brewster.

That's enough for me to say the Gopher running backs will be a definite upgrade over 2010, but what say you?