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Minnesota Football: Upgrade/Downgrade Runnings Backs

We begin our annual "Upgrade/Downgrade" positional preview with the strongest group on the team- and yes that would be with or without a certain highly decorated, hopefully incoming Washburn recruit.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We've been waiting for a return to prominence for Gopher running backs, and the running game in general, since Jerry Kill took over the program in 2011. As a coach who loved to run the football and had proven success doing it, we've seen steady improvement in each of the past three seasons. 2013 was the best rushing season since 2006 both for an individual back and the overall run game, as Minnesota had a breakout performance from David Cobb who became the team's first 1000 yard rusher since Amir Pinnix in '06, and the running game jumped into the top five in the run-heavy B1G. From SB Nation's Bill Connelly's excellent Minnesota Gopher team preview here are the individual rushing stats from 2013:

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Hlt Yds/
David Cobb RB 5'11, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 237 1202 7 5.1 5.7 34.2%
Mitch Leidner QB 6'4, 233 So. 2 stars (5.4) 89 477 7 5.4 3.7 49.4%
Philip Nelson QB 79 464 6 5.9 4.7 49.4%
Rodrick Williams, Jr. RB 5'11, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 60 332 3 5.5 6.7 31.7%
Donnell Kirkwood RB 5'10, 223 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 52 120 0 2.3 1.7 26.9%
Donovahn Jones WR-X 6'3, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 16 73 0 4.6 3.6 56.3%
Berkley Edwards RB 5'9, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jeff Jones RB 6'0, 198 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)

As good as Cobb was and as good as the group was last year, there is still plenty of room for improvement in 2014. As a team Minnesota ran almost 69% of the time, and while they ranked highly for volume with 586 rushes, they still have a long ways to go to be considered a premiere rushing team. In the B1G they ranked fifth in rush yards per game (195.2) and yards per carry (4.3), fourth in total rush yards (2538, as Indiana- yes Indiana- had a higher yds per game avg than the Gophs but did not make a bowl game, so The U surpassed them in total rush yds) and sixth in rushing touchdowns (23). Cobb's individual brilliance was also overshadowed by an especially strong year at HB for the conference as his 92.5 rushing yards per game was just seventh best in the B1G, and while his rusing average of 5.1 is good, it still pales in comparison to some of the ridiculous numbers put up last by bigger names at bigger school likes Carlos Hyde at OSU, Melvin Gordon and James White at Wisconsin, or Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska.

All of that is not to diminish the work done by the rushing offense and running backs, but only to show that while Minnesota is moving up in the run heavy B1G, in order to be considered an elite rushing offense both in the conference and the country, there is still plenty of work to do.

Cobb returns as the bell cow of the offense, as his 237 carries in 2013 were more than twice that of the rest of the running backs- COMBINED. That the second AND third leading rushers last season behind Cobb were quarterbacks shows the opportunity for other backs to step up, share more of the load from Cobb, and for the health of the QBs, hopefully take more carries from the signal callers. In a Jerry Kill/Matt Limegrover offense the quarterback is going to get carries, and as much as I don't like it and (IMO) to the deteriment of their health and well-being, far too many of those will be #RUTM. Still, there are plenty of carries to be had, and for the first time in a long time at Minnesota, plenty of talented and experienced backs to take them.

Make no mistake though, Cobb is your starter entering the season, which is all the more impressive considering he was nowhere close to that status at the beginning of last year. In fact, he ran for over 1200 yards despite only starting six games all season. No really. Seriously. It's true. Look it up. He began 2013 well down the depth chart but through injury and lack of production ahead of him, was able to make the most of his opportunities, and finally earned his first start in week 8 vs Nebraska. Of course, that stat is misleading considering he led non-QB's in rushing attempts four times prior to the Huskers upset, but still, that's kind of amazing (I'm not even mad). Cobb took advantage of starter Donell Kirkwood's injury, then outplayed Rodrick Nugget Williams the last two preseason whoops I mean non-conference games with a 13 carry /82 yd/2 TD performance vs Western Illinois (LEATHERNECKS!) before his breakout 25/125/2 demolishing of San Jose State. You may not remember that one because all anyone talked about from that game was Mitch "Moose" Leidner's own coming out party with 154 and 4 freaking scores. Still, that set Cobb firmly in the rotation before he, along with the entire team, didn't show up at all vs Iowa and Michigan.

He more than redeemed himself as just about the only offensive player to play well vs Northwestern in the road upset rushing for 102, which was the start of four straight 100 yard domination that not so coincedently also came during the Gophs' four game B1G win streak (you may have heard a thing or two about said streak. Kind of a big deal in these parts). Following the four straight wins unfortunately came three straight losses to close the season, yet Cobb remained one of the team's few (only?) consistent offensive performers with 62 carries for 260 yds, including 101 yards against Michigan State. Yes that same eventual B1G champion Spartans who only had the best run defense in the entire country. He also proved to be a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield as he finished third on the team with 17 catches...yeah I wish that was a typo. It's not. Minnesota's third leading receiver had 17 catches. In 13 games. Total. But hey, still good for Cobb showing some hands.

Cobb is a stud, and is the unquestioned #1 back entering the season, but he may have trouble duplicating his numbers from a season ago. It has nothing to do with Cobb's abilities, but simply the quality AND quantity of the guys fighting for carries behind him. If for some odd reason you were looking for the most likely candidate to usurp Cobb as the team's #1 tailback or at the very least compete with him for carries, for my money it would be Rodrick "Nugget" Williams, Jr, a monsterous junior tailback at 5'11 and- if his current profile is to be believed- 247 POUNDS!?!? Holy Christmas, that's not a running back, that's a dump truck in shoulder pads!


Rodrick Williams (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

2013 was a disappointing year for the big fella, a season that was almost the mirror opposite of Cobb's. He was listed as "starting" six of the first seven games of the season, yet only twice did he lead the running backs in carries, and only once did he eclipse 100 yards, a 16 carry/148 yd/1 score pummeling of NMSU, made all the more (or less) awesome on AggieVision. But after that, while his YPC was always solid, he saw the ball less and less, to the point that his carries- and playing time- disappeared completely. His last game of the 2013 season with a registered carry was the week 7 s**tshow against Michigan. where he had just 8 rushes for 33 yards- both of which led the team's RB for the day. And that was essentially it for Nugget's season as he would not touch the football again, and notched 3 DNP's in the final five games, including an oh-fer in the bowl game. In the games he didn't sit, he played special teams, and that was it. Ouch

So as disappointing as last year was, why the optimism for 2014? For one thing, the coaches still seem to love him, and they were giving him ample opportunities in spring practice. He's a good kid who seems to be trying again, and with his size and physical ability, how can you not give him the ball? The knock on him early in his career was he couldn't stay on the field for passing downs due to his pass blocking (or lack of it), but we don't hear that from the coaches now. Whatever plagued him the second half of last season, be it injuries or whatever else, the coaches seem willing to turn the page and give him a chance, and I think he'll reward them and then some.

If Nugget's 2013 was a disappointment, then what would you label Donnell "Kirkland" Kirkwood's past year? The team's leading rusher in 2012, he began the 2013 season as the starter but had a sub-par performance in the opener vs Vegas, then missed two games due to injury. When he got back, Cobb and Nugget had taken his playing time, and despite getting some opportunities throughout the season, he was just never able to get them back. We learned this week at B1G Media Days that perhaps an injury had a big something to do with it. Per Joe C:

RB Donnell Kirkwood had surgery earlier this summer (not sure what the injury was) but is working his way back to full speed. "He hasn’t been the same, but he feels good now," Kill said.

Makes you think Donnell's lack of production last season was due to a lack of health more than anything, and if he's ready to go full tilt for the fall, the 2012 season is a pretty good indicator of what he can do. He's a physical runner who excels at hitting the hole, keeping his pads square, and always seems to be running downhill. Having said that I just noticed his listed weight on the most recent roster is only 206? In 2013 he was listed at 223, and looked even bigger than that. I have neither seen nor heard anything about him planning to cut weight to get quicker, but also doubt its a typo. Anyway, it may be nothing, but expect him to fight for carries and if he's all the way back from surgery, I would think he'll contribute.

The fourth guy who should figure into the rotation is redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards. Just in case you somehow missed this in the past two years yes, he is former Michigan and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards' little brother, and yes, Gopher fans are pretty excited for him to finally get on the field. The hope is that Edwards adds the ingredient this offense has been missing for far too long (well ok besides competent and consistent QB play) as a home run threat out of the backfield and big play specialist. The three backs ahead of him are all capable of piling up yards, but rare is the occasion when they find a seam and sprint to daylight. Edwards is by far the smallest of the top four backs at just 5'9 and 185 pounds, but he also should be a lot faster and more explosive too.

If the running game wants to take the next step, they need to break a big run or at least have the threat of it, and the challenge ahead for OC Matt Limegrover is finding different ways to get Edwards involved while still getting Cobb and the big backs carries. Ideally you'd like to get Cobb or Nugget or Kirkland AND Edwards in the same formation at the same time, and while the obvious answer would be MOAR GOLDEN-I on every play, we could also see more two back sets without a full back, or Edwards in the slot to run the jet sweep. Wisconsin used this idea well by bringing tailback Melvin Gordon from the edge for a potential handoff on the jet sweep while keeping James White in the backfield for a potential handoff straight ahead.

A similar concept with, say, Cobb lining up behind the QB for a run straight ahead while instead of using a wideout like Donovan Jones (he should still be an option in the run game) or Issac Fruechte ( Three carries for FIVE yards last year. No. Not ever again. Please) Edwards starts on the edge and comes back towards the QB for a potential jet sweep. The Gophers ran this to perfection in the upset of Nebraska but some of the better defenses like Michigan State and Sconnie pretty much shut it down later in the year. There's also screens, swing passes and plenty of other options, but the challenge is how to get Edwards the ball in space with a chance to go because his speed provides an element of explosiveness none of the other three top backs can.

Two other running backs we know will be on the roster but likely won't compete for carries are senior Cole Banham and three star true freshman recruit Rodney Smith from Georgia. Banham has worked hard in practice and on scout team his entire career, but it would be a shock to see him get anything other than mop-up duty as a running back. Smith will likely redshirt this season and didn't get the hype of a certain other running back recruit, but he has the potential to contribute in the future.  He was rated a three star recruit by 247Sports, Scout and E!SPN, and 247Sports had him ranked as the 80th best RB in the nation.

Finally, there's Jeff Jones. You may have heard of him. Local kid who actually stayed home, star running back from Washburn, and the highest rated recruit the Gophers have landed in the internet recruiting era. That is, if they can get him into school. As of this writing Jones is yet to get eligible for the 2014 season, though Coach Kill's comments at B1G Media Days earlier in the week made it sound like Jones will get admitted. Let's hope so. Jones is absolutely the kind of elite talent that could come in and contribute from day one no matter how many good backs are ahead of him on the depth chart, but IF they can get him on campus this fall, the question is whether to redshirt him or not. Kill spoke like he was going to shirt him, which would make sense to help Jones get acclimated to college life and coursework, and make sure his academic house in a order before concentrating on football. At the same time, IF he's eligible to play and the coaches get a taste of what he can do in practice, it may be difficult to keep him off the field.


As of now we're going to assume Jones will not be a factor this fall, and yet the Gophers still have an excellent chance to improve in the run game from a season ago. The combination of skills from their backs provide every element you could ask for in the run game, though obviously the success or failure and the numbers they can put up relies on far more than just how good the backs are. If an experienced, talented and mammoth offensive line can take a step forward and if the offense can find a quarterback who can successfully throw the ball forward to players wearing Maroon and Gold, the chances for improvement- and a major one at that- are high. If the passing game provides more of the same non-passing, there's still a good opportunity to be better, though it could also mean similar results to last year where they ran over weaker defenses but struggled to move the ball consistently against the top defenses they'll face on a tough 2014 schedule.

Either way, a step back seems the least likely outcome, and a big step forward remains an excellent possibility.  What's crazy about 2013 is they had their best rushing season both as a team and for an individual back since 2006, and yet Cobb was the only running back who was healthy and productive all season. IF the top four guys are all healthy heading into the season, with the offensive line and blockers they have in place this is a running back group that could be in for a monster season.