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Updated: September 5th, 2013 3:04am
Gophers quick hits: Running back competition continues to ramp up

Gophers quick hits: Running back competition continues to ramp up

by Nate Sandell
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Gophers quick hits for Sept. 4

• Although signs were already pointing in the direction, it is becoming clearer that Minnesota Gophers starting running back Donnell Kirkwood will likely sit out the upcoming road trip to New Mexico State on Saturday.

Kirkwood, who tweaked his right ankle in the Gophers' season opener against UNLV, has yet to practice this week, but was able to do some light running on the sidelines Wednesday.

Coach Jerry Kill didn't want to officially rule him out yet as of Wednesday, but did reiterate that he is a "huge question mark" for Game 2.

Next man up

• Kirkwood's absence means a major opportunity for playing time is up for grabs for the rest of the running back corps. That in turn has brought an up-tick in the competition level at practice. Kill noted the change Tuesday, but said it has continued to build as the week has gone on.

"I think we've had our best week of practice at running back," Kill said. "And that's not because Donnell hasn't done good. It's just these kids go, 'Hey, we got an opportunity here. We've got to step it up.'"

Williams ready to go

• After being held out of the first half against UNLV as a result of being late to a team meeting, sophomore tailback Rodrick Williams has been double checking his alarm clock and was adamant he will be one of the first to the pre-game meeting this week, so expect him to be a factored into the run game early on.

Differing styles

• While Williams fits into the bruising, "run you over" mold of backs, junior David Cobb -- the likely complement at running back with Williams on Saturday -- provides a different look with his more slashing, finesse style. Both should get a chance at quality snaps in Las Cruces.

Cobb sees opportunity at hand

• Cobb, who spent his first two seasons at Minnesota trying to break away from the backend of the depth chart, is well aware of the chance he has to make an impact against New Mexico State with Kirkwood and freshman Berkley Edwards (ankle) sidelined.

"Of course you think about it, but every day you want to compete," Cobb said. "Even when Donnell is here, I want to start. I want to be better than him. I want to be in the position he's in. That's every running back that's not first."

Need for big play aversion

• In the Gophers defense's season debut against UNLV, a rough opening series in which the Rebels marched efficiently downfield for a touchdown gave way to solid performance, apart from several lapses where UNLV managed to reel off big gains (four plays went for 26 yards or more).

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, always a tough grader of his strengthening defense, had this take:

"Except for five or six plays I thought we played real well, but I was just disappointed, we're far enough along that we can't do that ... Overall, I wasn't disappointed, but we made two or three more mistakes than we should have for the first game for the stuff we worked on against them.

First drive kinks

• Claeys took the blame for the defense getting tripped up on UNLV's initial drive, which ended when running back Tim Cornett ran 26 yard up the middle, untouched, for a touchdown. Cornett's burst came with the Gophers' trying to give their starters a one or two snap break.

"That wasn't a very good call," Claeys said. "They shouldn't have scored ... That was on me. We had young kids in the game. I should have been more aware who was in."

Wells on track

• Sidelined in the season opener, Cornerback Derrick Wells (shoulder/hamstring) has practiced all week at "full-tilt," Kill said, and is on track to be available Saturday.

But with Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Martez Shabazz all having noteworthy outings against UNLV, the Gophers have the luxury of being careful how they use Wells early on if he indeed makes the trip to New Mexico.

Harbison to sit out again

• Kill said redshirt freshman wide receiver Jamel Harbison will miss his second straight game as a result of an undisclosed off-field discipline issue. However, Kill's low-key, positive take on the matter subdued any concern over it being a long-term problem.

"We're working through that, but he'll be back here soon," Kill said. "He's doing a good job with what he's been asked or told to do."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to
Email Nate | @nsandell