Breaking down the Gophers RBs: James Gillum makes bid for top spot
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 1, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
Projected depth chart
• James Gillum -- Junior, 5-foot-11, 204 pounds, Pearl River, La.
• David Cobb -- Sophomore, 5-11, 220, Killeen, Texas
• Donnell Kirkwood -- RS Sophomore, 5-10, 216, Delray Beach, Fla.
• Devon Wright -- RS Sophomore, 6-0, 195, Coral Springs, Fla.
• Cole Banham -- RS Sophomore, 5-9, 117, Lakeville, Minn.
• JoJuan Harper -- Freshman, 5-10, 195, Columbia Heights, Minn.
• Rodrick Williams Jr. -- Freshman, 5-11, 228, Lewisville, Texas
• Duane Bennett -- Three-year starter led Gophers running backs with 639 yards in his senior season in 2011.
Bennett is gone and with no clear-cut successor left behind, playing time is up for grabs. The Gophers are several recruiting classes away from being considered deep at running back, but with the addition of junior college transfer Gillum and a trio of developing sophomores -- Kirkwood, Cobb and Wright -- offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has more options (though not without notable weaknesses) to work with then he had in the first season under Jerry Kill.
When you are owners of the worst offense in the Big Ten -- the Gophers averaged 310.3 total yards last season -- it is obvious problems exist in every area. The run game was no exception. The Gophers totaled 1,920 yards on the ground in 2011, averaging 160 yards per game. Take away scramble-prone, fleet-footed quarterback MarQueis Gray's rushing total (966) and that number drops to 954 yards (79.5 per game). Gray's ability and willingness to scramble downfield for positive yardage is critical to the success of the run game, but the Gophers are searching for consistent help at running back to take off some pressure.
Limegrover, who has been in charge of Kill's offense since 2001 at Southern Illinois, has shown a preference for a by-committee style at running back, especially in the absence of a marquee talent. With the depth chart still wide open to debate, that same approach is expected to be seen this season.
"We've always had it by committee. Even when we had Brandon Jacobs at Southern Illinois, he wasn't an every down back, because we had two other guys," Limegrover said during a conversation in June.
"I'm real optimistic about our backs. You're not going to see one guy back there. You're not going to have one guy that is a 1,500-yard runner. ... We don't ever fret about that and our backs understand that. It isn't something all of a sudden guys are getting their nose out of joint about."
Though carries will be spread around, Limegrover is still looking for someone to step into a go-to role. Kirkwood's 229 yards in 2011 stands as the most among the Gophers' returning backs. In his 5-10, 216-pound shell, Kirkwood is a confident and compact runner, unafraid to embrace contact, with deceptive speed given his quirky appearance. However, a history of hamstring troubles has cast a red flag on him. Kirkwood missed the majority of his original freshman season in 2010 after straining his right hamstring, resulting in the NCAA granting him a medial redshirt.
Even after missing the bulk of fall camp with lingering problems with the same hamstring, Kirkwood appeared in some capacity in every game last season. Despite working with team trainers on strengthening his legs in winter workouts, the hamstring was pulled out of whack again in the first practice of the spring. He eventually returned several practices prior to the spring game, experiencing no reported issues. While there is hope Kirkwood can be a reliable threat in the backfield, the coaching staff is approaching the season with a slight trepidation of the long-term stability of his wayward hamstring.
David Cobb, coming off a freshman season in which he gained 57 yards in four games, was an impressive sight early in the spring. Up nearly 10 pounds from his listed weight of 208 last season, Cobb showed an increased downfield burst and a newly discovered competitive edge when approaching a defender. It's unfortunate for him a minor knee injury in the second week of April ended his spring, abruptly delaying the development leap he had taken. Surgery was not required and Cobb is expected to be fully healthy when fall camp begins, which will be a crucial time for the 19-year-old back to prove he can continue tracking upward.
"I think there is a learning curve that still has to play out, but I think the consistency is starting to come with him," Limegrover said.
Wright -- a taller, leaner back than the rest of his peers in the backfield -- has won the praise of his coaches for the believed potential he possesses. When or if that will take root come game time is up for debate. Used mainly on special teams in his freshman year, Wright is arguably the most pure athletic running back the Gophers have, gifted with the speed and agility to make defenders miss. He had a respectable spring, but didn't do anything to separate himself from the others.
"Devon has the ability to be an every-down back," Limegrover said. "It's just a matter of where now that best fits for us and how we can best utilize him in amongst those other guys that are really doing well."
Kirkwood, Wright and Cobb will be competing for position primarily with heralded newcomer Gillum. There was a recognizable excitement within the Gophers staff when the 21-year-old all-around back was signed out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College -- a school from which Kill has recruited and had past success. (He brought another running back, Larry Warner, to Southern Illinois in 2007.)
A 1,000-yard rusher with MGCC in 2011, Gillum enrolled at the "U" in January, allowing him to be thrust into the fray during the spring. While experiencing the hurdles that come with adjusting to a new system, Gillum emerged at the end of spring unshaken, with the expectation that he can be a top contender for the starting spot still solidly intact.
"I think James is a guy, who as those lights go on, he's just going to get better and better and he's going to be a guy that is going to be consistent," Limegrover said.
Harper, who transferred from (but didn't play at) North Dakota State College of Sciences, joins Banham as a needed layer of depth on the back end. Banham, the older brother of Gophers women's basketball standout Rachel Banham, made several notable plays in the spring, and Harper garnered attention after a posting a game-high 44 yards in the spring game. But the pair appears destined to stay in the shadows this season, providing an element of competition in practice, while able to step in if injuries deem it necessary. Williams -- a three-star rated prospect from Lewisville Texas -- is a likely redshirt candidate.
Jerry Kill's take on ... James Gillum
"James is exactly what we thought he would be. He's a banger, a tough kid. He's got great vision. He doesn't make mental mistakes. He's a good pass protector. So we feel good. He's added depth and competition at that position."
Limegrover and the Gophers believe they are slowly finding the right formula and balance at running back. However, progress may not be seen until at least midseason. There are too many question marks throughout the unit to expect anyone to make a headline-worthy impact right away. Gillum has the ability and backing to be the Gophers' starter when the season kicks off Aug. 30 at UNLV. To ensure that status, he must continue to progress and grow more comfortable with the offense during fall camp.
If Kirwood is able to stay healthy, he will give the Gophers a needed weapon up the middle. Cobb is on the path toward developing into a reliable back and will have the opportunity to take another step forward this fall. Wright is the wild card. His speed and elusiveness is very enticing, but he hasn't shown where he fits into Limegrover's offense. With the work-in-progress nature of the Gophers running backs, a 200-yard increase from their rushing numbers a year ago could be considered a success.