Gophers-by-position preview: Run, run, run, away ... from anybody?
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Each Tuesday until practice begins in August, 1500ESPN.com correspondent Darren "Doogie" Wolfson breaks down the Gophers football team by position.
Gophers running backs coach Thomas Hammock faced a difficult decision this offseason: leave for a job with Michigan State that offered more money -- and, more important, job security -- or continue to work for Tim Brewster.
To Brewster's credit, he convinced Hammock to stay by giving him the title of co-offensive coordinator. Not bad for someone who doesn't turn 30 years old until July 7, 2011.
The new title was necessary for more money. Don't be mistaken. This is still Jeff Horton's offense.
But we can't underestimate Hammock's pull. Behind the scenes, he's considered the best recruiter among the position coaches.
Hammock works Florida, where he landed running backs Devon Wright (Coral Springs) and Donnell Kirkwood (Delray Beach).
According to gophersports.com, Wright also had offers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Boston College and Indiana. According to the Sun-Sentinel, those schools just had interest. Whoever is right, we know Wright is highly thought of. He led star-studded Broward County in rushing his junior and senior seasons.
As for Kirkwood, he reportedly turned down offers from Kansas State, Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
The biggest new running back this season is Woodbury's Lamonte Edwards, who is 6-foot-2, 215 lbs. He also will be given every opportunity to earn playing time during the August practices.
The best-case scenario is one of the three makes an impact like Dion Lewis -- the sophomore running back from Pittsburgh who is on some Heisman Trophy watch lists. He earned playing time through noteworthy practices but, last July, was given little chance to make an impact in his freshman season.
The worst-case scenario is none of the three does anything to distinguish himself, and the status quo remains.
That would be a running back-by-committee, with Edwards, Wright or Kirkwood -- likely in that order -- getting the carries that went to Kevin Whaley last year. The remaining carries would be split between red-shirt junior Duane Bennett and junior DeLeon Eskridge.
May I remind you of the ineptitude of the running game last season, the Gophers' first in the pro-style offense: the Gophers finished last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in rushing offense (99.5 yards per game) -- which was an improvement of nearly 20 yards per game compared to 2008.
The status quo won't work. The Gophers need one of the new guys to prove worthy of 17-plus carries per game.
Bennett has more 100-yard receiving games (two) than 100-yard rushing games (one), although in his defense, he is now two years removed from ACL reconstruction. Last year was both a mental and physical challenge in that regard. It'll be interesting to see if Horton looks to get him the ball more out of the backfield.
Eskridge is a change-of-pace back who can be fed the ball seven times per game. If coaches are counting on him to be the No. 1 back, something has gone miserably wrong.
The line of thinking that Bennett and Eskridge need to play "pissed" -- that they need to use the three freshmen as motivation -- sounds fine and dandy except for this tiny fact: they lack the necessary skill-set to be the featured guy. Both are fine in doses, Bennett more than Eskridge ... but that's it.
I chatted with Bennett last week during a captain's practice organized by quarterback Adam Weber and fullback Jon Hoese. Below is our full Q&A.
• How important are these summer workouts with Weber, Hoese, etc.?
DB: It's big for us right now. We're coming to the end of summer workouts, and once we hit training camp, we're going to hit the ground rolling. So, we're trying to get as much work done as possible with all the players being on the same page, kind of bringing in the young guys and getting them ready to see what college football is like. It's big for us. Kind of show the guys the ropes and get a chance to build that chemistry, to build that cohesiveness, so when we go out on the field there's no false steps -- there's no lag that we have to make up for when we hit training camp.
• Optimism high entering camp?
DB: Oh, yeah! Very much so. Really, I think the biggest thing I've noticed this year is that a lot of guys are really starting to show their character, they're really starting to come out of their shell, talk more, get to know each other, hang out more off the field. So, I think that's great for us right now. Just having those guys open up and show their true selves, it shows you what you're working with on the team. A lot of people, they kind of stay reserved, kind of really just listen to the older guys, but right now, we have a lot of guys being great influences to the team, and I think that is really going to help us out.
• Has that (leadership and team unity) been a problem the last two years?
DB: I don't think it was necessarily a problem, but I just felt it could have been very beneficial that, if we had guys opening up more, it would have helped us out a lot more because it wouldn't have been so pessimistic on the sidelines. Everybody was kind of closed-minded to what they wanted to do. Now, it's kind of like everybody is opened to new things, everybody is teaching others new things from what they experienced. And you just kind of feed off that.
• You look to be in phenomenal shape, what kinds of strides have you made in the weight room?
DB: Just working everyday, trying to get everything taken care of. I've been working with Coach (Mark) Hill and Coach Peeps. I think the biggest thing is just getting stronger. Right now, I think we had a little max-out session, so I'm putting up solid numbers -- not where I want to be, but it's always a building block for me, so I think it's a great thing for us.
• Give me the number, what are you maxing out at?
DB: We just did bench press. I'm at 390 right now. So, right now, it sounds like a decent number, but I'm my worst critic and I'm trying to get higher than that.
• Where were you at this time last year?
DB: I was probably like 370, so it was a decent jump. But I think my biggest focus is taking care of my body overall, not just focusing on numbers and everything. But being able to make it through a whole workout, being able to consistently get better everyday has been my main focus.
• Where are you weight-wise?
DB: I'm sitting at a solid 210. Every time we weigh in, every Monday we weigh in, I weigh at 209 (or) 210, so I'm looking to go into camp right at that, and hopefully, I can play at that this year.
• What did you play at last year?
DB: I played at right around 203 (to) 205. I came into camp a little heavier -- I came into camp 210 (or) 212, but after all the exhaustion running around and practices, I think I dropped about six or seven pounds. So, I was playing at about 205 last year.
• There have been all sorts of stories about how it takes running backs two years to recover from an ACL injury. Have you heard about that; do you buy into that?
DB: I've heard about it and I've talked to one of my former teammates, J Thomas, about him having both of his knees injured at some point. I think at some point there is a factor that involves having two years to recover. It's definitely a mental factor, because I know last year I physically felt like I could do everything, but as I sat back and evaluated myself and watched game film, there was still some hesitancy in some of the things I was doing. I think the biggest thing is overcoming your fears. After you get hurt one time, you have the fear of re-injuring that injury. Right now, it's a big thing for me, so I'm really focusing on making those strides, and I don't really worry about it. It has become second nature for me, so the main focus right is to keep getting better.
• So the knee is 100 percent?
DB: Oh, yeah! The knee is 100 percent right now.
• Agree or disagree: you are the starting running back?
DB: Disagree. Right now, wwe're having a battle. We'll see at the end of camp. It's always a dream to be the starting running back, but at the same time, you have to put in your time, you've got to put in your work. You've got to prove to the coaches that you're the guy that the team can count on. And at this point, I've been busting my tail the whole summer, so right now, I'm just looking for a direct correlation from summer work ethic to my fall work.
• Do you cherish the competition with the four other running backs?
DB: I love it, because during the summer, it's more of a guidance thing. You bring the young guys in and you try to get them ready and you do everything you can. But at the same time, people try to look at that as a negative, but helping others is a positive in my eyes. Just knowing what you have coming in. Just to know that those guys are as good or better than you, then you know that you have a stable that you can rely on. And just having those guys behind me and trying to learn the ropes, really get a grasp on what college football is like, I think it's a great thing. And the competition is great, because you know that everyday you have to come out and work. A lot of guys come out they know they have a solidified role and they kind of become very relaxed or they become complacent almost and just knowing that they are the guy. Just knowing that you have to come out everyday balls to the walls, you kind of cherish that, because you push yourself past limits that you ever thought you could go past.
• Are any of the three freshman running backs on campus yet?
DB: Two of the freshmen I know are here -- they're still working out with the team. Lamonte Edwards and Donnell Kirkwood. They've been getting decent work in and also getting work in off the field as far as academics are concerned.
• What are your impressions of them?
DB: I haven't been working out with them in the weight room. We delegated groups based on your class schedule, but every now and again, I get them out and do drill work. Kind of just go through a little synopsis of what we do during camp and how the tempo flows. So, those guys are really taking ownership and getting better and really trying to grasp the offense.
• True or false: Horton's offense is much easier to grasp compared to Fisch's?
DB: I'm kind of in between. It's true and false, because it's very similar to Jedd Fisch's offense, being a pro-style offense, but I think the one thing Coach Horton does more than Coach Fisch did is that he is dedicated to running the ball. A couple of times during the spring, we were down and it was third-and-12 and he called a run play. So, he is really dedicated to the run. That's what he wants to build the team off of. But as far as the philosophy and the concepts of the offense, they are very similar.
• The offensive line -- every starter is back. They've been under the gun the last couple of years. What can you say about the offensive line?
DB: I'm very optimistic about our offensive line. We've got a great group of guys coming back. We got all our starters coming back. We've brought in a bunch of freshman who are eager to learn. Coach (Tim) Davis has been able to work with these guys for two years now, so I think they're really starting to get the ball rolling. And I think the biggest thing is the cohesiveness. Just coming in the first couple of years running the spread to jumping into a more hand-in-the-dirt, power attack, a guy has got to kind of readjust to how things work and different terminology with the offensive line coaches. But as of right now, I really feel 100 percent confident in our offensive line.
• I had somebody at a football camp tell me about Matt Carufel. I hear now that he's doing great and that he's nasty. I've heard that a couple of times -- that guy has a nasty streak. Do you agree with that?
DB: Oh, yeah! We've got a lot guys who have a dog type of mentality on the offensive line. They're willing to go to bat for any guy -- receivers, running back, quarterback, tight end -- whenever there is something that breaks out, they are always there knowing that they got your back. Our whole offensive line has a dog mentality, so they are kind of the backbone of the team; just being a protector for everybody.
• Is the other backbone sitting over there (pointing to Weber)?
DB: Oh, most definitely! Web, he's a great leader. You've got to cherish a guy like that, because it's not very often that you have a guy who can come in and lead and be as hungry as others and still have enough composure to go out and play ball well. So, just having him as a leader I think is a great thing for us.