We continue our analysis of the depth of the Gophers roster by reviewing the running back position. Let's start by reviewing 2011 results. The Gophers rushed for 1,920 yards during 2011 and averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per rush. There is no question the run game saw improvement over 2010 results when the Gophers only averaged 3.6 yards per rush. These figures are a bit skewed though because they take MarQueis Gray's rushing figures into account who ran 199 times for 966 yards 6 TDs and averaged 4.9 yards per rush. In fact, MarQueis was the leading rusher during the Gophers 2011 campaign. When we strip Marqueis Gray's figures out of our rushing statistics it paints a very pedestrian picture. Our primary running back was Duane Bennett who rushed 166 times for 639 yards 3 TDs and averaged 3.8 yards per rush. Donnell Kirkwood was the only other running back that saw significant playing time in 2011 rushing 63 times for 243 yards 3 TDs and averaged 3.6 yards per rush. Clearly, MarQueis elevates our rushing numbers. Our running backs averaged a pedestrian 3.8 yards per rush and accumulated 6 rushing touchdowns. More alarming is that the running backs had virtually no involvement in the passing game. Duane Bennett's 3 catches for 23 yards were Gopher running backs only contribution to the passing game. Lastly, there was minimal game breaking ability displayed by our running backs. The longest run from scrimmage by our backs was a 30 yard scamper by Kirkwood. I believe the running back position is an area that we need to see an infusion of more dynamic players get involved in 2012. Duane Bennett has graduated, so the Gophers will need to replace 35% of their rushing attempts in 2012. Who stands to benefit from the void at the running back position?
David Cobb: Is a sophomore running back who saw the field briefly in 2011 as a true freshman. He rushed 10 times for 57 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per rush (extremely small sample size). David is 5'11" 212 lbs out of Killeen, Texas where he rushed for 2,946 yards and 35 touchdowns. It speaks volumes about what Kill feels about Cobb that he saw the field as a true freshman, but could also simply be an indictment of the talent level of the position. However, the glimpses we saw of Cobb lead me to believe he is a dynamic runner that can put more pressure on the defense than we have been accustomed to seeing these past few years. However, if Gillum is a dynamic as I think he is Cobb may struggle to find significant playing time in 2012.
Conclusion: It can be challenging to judge running backs because they are so dependent on the offensive line and the ability of the quarterback to stretch the field with the passing game, so defenders can't load the box to stop the run. 2011 demonstrated that our running backs lacked speed and the ability to generate big plays. I do believe the Gophers will miss the leadership that Duane Bennett provided, but he simply didn't provide the skill level to scare defenses. I believe Gillum will stabilize the running back position and provide more big plays in the running game, as a result I look for him to be the primary running back. I think we will continue to see a decent dose of Donnell as the bruising change of pace back or to get the tough yards on 3 and short situations. As I alluded to above, I think if Devon Wright can get on the field he could surprise as a dynamic playmaker we have been looking for in the running back position. I would imagine Rodrick will redshirt in 2012. The good news is that we have a young stable of running backs with Gillum, a junior, being the only upperclassman. Kirkwood, Wright and Cobb are all only sophomores. Running back has been a position of weakness over the past few seasons, but I think this young group can succeed if Gray continues to make strides as a quarterback. The running back position should also benefit from the emergence of our offensive line, which if it can live up to the potential of the recruits brought in the past few years could be the core strength of this team in the years ahead.