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Minnesota Gopher Football- 2012 Positional Preview Running Backs: Upgrade or Downgrade

For the past couple of decades (or more) The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football program has been, well, not especially good. The fact the outside world thinks Gopher fans should be thrilled just to return to the levels Glen Mason had the program at, 6-7 wins a year against a laughable non-conference schedule while hoping to eek out two or three conference wins to become bowl eligible shows just how bad things have been. I’m expecting more out of Jerry Kill and his program, just not this season and probably not next, but that’s another post for another time.

For the past few years we here at TDG have done an Upgrade/Downgrade preview for every position, trying to figure out whether the upcoming season's group will be better than last year's. When making these comparisons, we haven't had much to compare to that you would consider good, let alone great, and it's about the same going back a couple of decades too. An even marginal defense has been few and far between, we haven’t seen a productive offensive line since Mason, and other than- according to GN- the greatest quarterback who has ever lived in Adam Weber, the team’s QB play has been so-so at best.

Receivers? We’ve seen a few very good receivers in the past few decades: Ron Johnson was excellent in the late 90’s-early 2000’s, Eric Decker was a step better from 2008-10, and recently departed Da’Jon McKnight had a break-out junior season in 2010 and an under-the-radar-actually-pretty-solid senior year in 2011. Tight end brought us a few All-conference guys and even an All-American, but the one position where we’ve actually witnessed greatness in Maroon and Gold is at running back. Darrell Thompson became the school’s all-time rushing leader in the early 1990’s, and was a first round pick of the Packers. The Glen Mason Era produced a slough of good backs, and two great ones in Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney. They were all-conference and potential All-Americans, and it still baffles me how a team with those two guys went 8-4. Glen Mason, ladies and gentlemen.

Also sprinkled in were names like Tellis Redmon, Gary Russell, and Amir Pinnix, who while not as wildly productive as Barber or Maroney, were still very good Big Ten backs. Since then…yeah not so much. The running game has flat stunk, and Tim Brewster’s revolving door of coordinators couldn’t create a decent running game, or even a halfway decent tailback. Since Mason left we not only haven’t seen a running back go for 1000 yards or 10 TD’s in a season, we haven’t even seen one eclipse 800 yards rushing or score 8 TD's.

With Jerry Kill and Matt Limegrover, we now have two gentlemen who understand how to teach and implement a running game, as they’ve had success with it everywhere they’ve been. In their ideal offense which we saw, say, when Kill’s Northern Illinois squad ran over, around, and through the Minnesota defense back in 2010, they showed they can certainly produce a high-quality running game and running back. That day a small and lightly recruited tailback named Chad Spann piled up over 200 yards on the ground all by himself. And it wasn't just the Gophers they ran over (and they weren't just the only ones to run over the Gophers. My gawd that was a bad year. Well except for the Iowa win. That was fun. That's always fun), as Spann was a top 20 runner in the country with 1388 yards and the team ran for a whopping 3645 yards on 6.2 yards per carry (so not a typo) and 42 TD's. Yes, most of that was against MAC teams, but that's still mighty impressive and hopefully a sign of things to come here. While I highly doubt we’ll see it in 2012, we’re much closer to it this season than we were two years ago, or even last year.

So when we do these positional previews and talk about expectations for the positions and compare last season to this, running back is definitely one spot where I’m always thinking “Ok, how close to Maroney and Barber are these guys going to be this year?” I never saw Darrell Thompson play, so Maroney and Barber are a level of greatness I've seen and understand. So why not just use those two as the barometer? Why not indeed! So I've created the Maroney/Barber Scale, a VERY hi-tech and scientific scale (and by that I mean the opposite of hi-tech and scientific) that rates any back on the Gopher roster. It goes as follows...

5 Maroney/Barber's- Like the scale's namesakes, a 5 rates as not just one of the best backs in the conference, but also the country. All-American potential.

4.5 MB's- Think Chad Spann in his senior year at NIU. Maybe not one of the nation's top backs (he was 20th in the nation in rushing his senior year and popped 22 TDs!), but a leading candidate for all-conference honors.

4 MB's- Gary Russell or Tellis Redmon. A borderline all-conference performer (both guys eclipsed 1000 yards rushing in at least one season, and Russell had 18 rushing TD's while splitting time with Maroney as a junior. Had he stayed for his senior year, he could have been a 4.5 MB guy or better. His avg per carry as a junior? 6.1 on almost 200 carries. Egads).

3.5 MB's- Not flashy but solid. 800-1000 yards, 6+ TD's and at least 4 yards per carry.

3 MB's- Average. Not great, not terrible, just average. Duane Bennett last season comes to mind- 639 yds, 3.8 YPC, 3 TD's. Or DeLeon Eskridge in 2010.

2.5 MB's- A borderline starter, and he better not be the only guy carrying the mail. The 2009 Gopher team had three of these, and it produced one of their worst rushing seasons in forever. Bennett, Eskridge and Kevin Whaley (remember him?) all shared carries with woeful results, as none had over 100 carries or 400 yards rushing.

2 MB's- Backup. Either not ready or not capable of carrying the load but can contribute here or there. This was Donnell Kirkwood in 2011, as he carried just 63 times for 243 yards (3.6 YPC) and 3 TD's.

1.5 MB's- Either due to injury or a lack of production, you get more than a little, but not a lot. Kirkwood in 2010 is a perfect example, as he played in just four games due to injury, and managed 27 carries for 112 yards (4.0 YPC) and no scores.

1 MB- Not ready, not willing, and/or not able. Or David Cobb's freshman season from a year ago, where he played in just 4 games, and carried the ball 10 times for 57 yards.

0.5 MB- Two words: Devon Wright. In 2011, he carried the ball one time for a loss of one. That was it. That was all.

The idea is that it's not judging a player's max ceiling (like Cobb last year or Kirkwood in 2010), just what the actual production is expected to be for the season. From the examples, you can see the team's best running back last year was Bennett who rated as just 3 MB's, as the U's primary ball carrier was quarterback MarQueis Gray. The top backup was Kirkwood at 2 MB's, then Cobb at 1 MB and the non-existent Wright at .5. Lamonte Edwards was also in the mix early before being moved over to linebacker.

To try and guess whether we'll see an upgrade or downgrade from 2011 to 2012, there's a few factors to keep in mind, and honestly, it totally depends upon what you see as being "successful" for the running back position. Just try to compare the 2011 running backs to 2010: the running game as a whole was an improvement over 2010, with 1920 yards at 4.1 YPC while scoring 14 rushing TD's. Compared to 2010 they gained almost 300 more yards with a half a yard per carry improvement (which is huge), but scored the same amount of TD's on the ground. Based on that, the running backs were obviously better, right?

Wrong. The improvement from 2010 to 2011 had almost nothing to do with the quality and caliber of the running backs, as despite a horrific string of injuries to the offensive line, it still outperformed the 2010 group, especially once Chris Bunders moved outside from guard to tackle. And the biggest addition to the 2011 running game wasn't a back or an offensive lineman, but instead was the QB MarQueis Gray, who had a spectacular season running the ball. He just missed both 1000 yards for the season and 5 yards per carry, with 966 yards on 4.9 YPC, and led the team with 6 rushing TD's. Bennett, 2011's top running back, actually had worse numbers across the board than 2010's leading back Eskridge. So if you're judging that one, would you say the running backs were an upgrade or downgrade in 2011 over 2010? Not an easy answer.

Thankfully the comparison between 2011 and 2012 should be a little more straight forward, as we're mostly comparing apples to apples. There won't be Brewster's annual coaching and/or philosophy change, as we'll see the same offense this year that we saw last year. We'll also see almost all of the same guys back trying to run it, as the line lost only Bunders as a starter, and Gray returns for his senior year at QB. The one big change will be at the top of the running back depth chart as Bennett graduates, leaving three returning players to vie for playing time against a couple of new comers, one of whom has already has the inside track to start.

James Gillum, JUCO transfer, Junior, 3.5 MB's
The transfer from Gulf Coast CC in Mississippi entered spring ball as the starter, and will enter fall camp in the same place. Looks like a solid all-around back who can be a feature guy, he did nothing to dispell those beliefs in the spring, and should be the clear-cut #1 back in the opener against UNLV. Two questions for me about Gillum: the first is whether he'll outperform Bennett's 2011 season. Can he be the first back post-Mason to go for at least 800 yards and 8 scores? And in the same season? I like his chances for at least 800 yards with at least 4 ypc, which means getting to 200 carries for the year, which is something else that Bennett, and every other back post- Mason, hasn't been able to do. If he can continue to gain the coaches' trust in camp and prove he's by far the #1 guy, then he'll get the ball all he can handle. 8 TD's may be tougher to come by unless he breaks some long runs, although if he gets to 200 carries that'll mean he likely gets some goal-line carries too.

My other main question is can he get more carries and outgain MarQueis? If he can it means one of two things- either Gillum is way better than we thought and he gets 1000 yards or more, or Gray is in for a really bad year. Last season, with every single defense keyed in on stopping #5, Q had almost 1000 yards at almost 5 yards per carry, and if the NCAA didn't insist on using the stupid rule that says sacks count against a QB's rushing yards, he would have surpassed both marks easily. So with a better o-line AND if Gillum is the improvement we hope over Bennett, then there's no reason Gray's numbers shouldn't be even better in 2012- just hopefully on less carries, and less carries right up the gut. Barring injury Gray should have an outstanding season running the ball, so for Gillum to surpass him he'd have to have a monster year. I like Gillum, but not that much. Not this year, at least.

David Cobb, Sophomore, 2.0 MBs
IF Gray and Gillum have the seasons we think they're capable of, then that's going to leave somewhere between 60-90 carries for the #3 ball carrier. While the coaches might like to have less wear and tear on Gray, he's just so flippin' good running that barring injury he's going to be one of their top two ball carriers. So unless Gillum flops, it means less carries and opportunities for Cobb. While I think he could be a 2.5 MB guy this year, I'm betting more on the safe side of 60-70 carries, but I do think that his blend of size and speed (and did I mention size? Because the Gophersports website has him listed at 220 pounds. 220!) will give him first crack at the #2 running back job. Maybe he explodes and eats into Gillum's carries and it's more of a running back by committee thing, but Kill's history at NIU showed if he has two guys to run the ball then he leans on them; we know Gray is one of those guys and I think Gillum has a much better chance going into camp of being the other.

Donnell Kirkwood, Sophomore, 1.5 MB's
As a true freshman in 2010 Kirkwood had carries in three of the first four games, totaling 112 yards on 27 carries. The kid looked good and ran tough on what would be Tim Brewster's worst-and thankfully final- Gopher team. Just as he started to give fans some hope, a leg injury ended his season. The silver lining was a medical hardship waiver granted by the NCAA, giving him a do-over on his freshman year. With a new, competent coaching staff who loved to run the ball, things looked up for Kirkwood in 2011, but for whatever reason it just never happened. Maybe the knee wasn't 100%, or maybe it was any number of things, but Kirkwood failed to gain traction in the running back rotation. Maybe he just needs a full off-season to get himself back to full strength, and he has a chance to perhaps be a short yardage or goal line back because the guys he's competing with like Cobb are...oh right, 220 pounds. And Roderick Williams is 235...Ok so yeah, Kirkwood has his work cut out for him.

Rodrick Williams Jr, Freshman, 0.5 MB's
My guess is the human bowling ball redshirts, but then again I thought the same of David Cobb last year. So who knows, right? I'll be honest, that's about all that I know about Rodrick other than what his bio says, and from what I read, I like the big fella's potential. Just not this season.

Devon Wright, RS Sophomore, 0.5 MB's
When he's the example of a 0.5 MB's, what did you think he was going to get? Still the same "speedster" we've heard about since coming in 2010, but it looks like he'll be lost in the shuffle for another season.

So there you have it, the contenders for carries at running back for 2012. Can they outpace the 2011 squad? Can they eclipse 2000 yards on the ground for the first time since Mason coached back in 2006? Will any one back put up better numbers than Duane Bennett did in 2011? With an improved offensive line, and one last year of MarQueis Gray, no matter how you view success for the Gopher running backs, you have to like their chances of being an upgrade from a year ago.