Notebook: Running backs David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood swap places
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers running back David Cobb may be stuck on the sidelines for the remainder of the spring.
Cobb was constrained to an orange no-contact jersey Thursday after tweaking his left knee in practice on Tuesday. The injury shouldn't require surgery, coach Jerry Kill insisted, but a return before the conclusion of spring ball on April 21 is questionable.
Though the long-term effects likely won't be noticeable, Cobb's injury is another aggravation for a youthful "U" running back corps that has yet to have its full arsenal available. Cobb more or less switched places with fellow sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, who was cleared for his first carries since popping his hamstring on Day 1 of practice.
Kirkwood will have his reps capped at a limited number, but that isn't preventing the compact, 5-foot-10, 216-pound back from being relived to be back in the huddle.
"It feels much better," he said of his hamstring. "I feel a part of the team again."
Issues with the same hamstring have hindered Kirkwood for much of his collegiate career. Sidelined for the bulk of fall camp, he soldiered through frequent flare-ups to spread out 229 rushing yards in 2011 -- the most of any of the Gophers' returnees at the position.
In the off-season, Kirkwood progressed almost pain-free as he intently focused on conditioning his legs from enduring a similar problem. But less than two hours into spring practice, he felt his hamstring give out and spent the next three weeks watching longingly from the corner of the practice field.
"That was what was upsetting, because there were no signs of it happening again," Kirkwood said. "So when I came out here and it happened it was like, I didn't know what to think."
Working with team trainers, Kirkwood says he's identified his running motion as the likely culprit for his bout with injuries. Instead of keeping his legs aligned underneath the core of his body, Kirkwood tends to run with them projected outwards -- a problem he is trying to fix.
"It's something I have to work on in my own time, but it is something that is crucial because it keeps hindering me from progressing," he said.
The Gophers could surely use a healthy Kirkwood and Cobb in their backfield. With longtime feature back Duane Bennett gone, playing time is up for grabs. Carries were spread throughout the group in Kill's first year as the "U" rushing game went through a torrent of growing pains.
The Gophers are intent are remedying those problems this season, which in turn hinges on one or two players taking on a increased burden of responsibility. Kirkwood and Cobb, who logged minutes in three games last season, have the advantage of experience. But highly hyped junior college transfer James Gillum is making a strong bid for the top spot and could be the prime candidate come fall.
Having enough options to choose from will be key when two-a-days start at the end of summer, and the Gophers are trying to ensure guys stay healthy. Kirkwood and Cobb are being monitored closely to prevent any lingering issues that could derail their off-season prep.
In the wake of the tragic passing of former linebacker Gary Tinsley last Friday, the Gophers finally had a tempered state of normalcy restored at practice Thursday. Backed by a cloudless, comfortable April afternoon, the team held a situational scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium, which was originally slated to be held Saturday before practice was rightfully canceled.
"Coming over to the game field was a good idea," Kill said. "There is something about it. You can practice, but when you get to the game field there is always a jitter or two."
With the coordinators up in the press box and coaches equipped with headsets, the Gophers ran through a multitude of schemes -- third and fourth down situations, punt formations and no-huddle. The results varied, but the practice served the purpose of getting the team ready for a more open, full-contact scrimmage under the lights on Friday.
"We really haven't done anything as far as putting down the ball and playing," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "We needed today to be able to come out and polish things up and be better tomorrow."
Tinsley remains at the forefront of the minds of players and coaches alike. The Gophers are set to honor their teammate's passing by boarding a 6:30 a.m. flight on Saturday to attend funeral services in Tinsley's hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.
"I don't think any of us will be tired or make excuses of that nature," Kill said. I think we're all looking forward to going down and seeing Gary's family."
"I've said all along, the only thing that matters to me are these kids and Gary's family and celebrating his life. And he's certainly left a great legacy for us to follow as people, not only our young players but as coaches and adults."
• At the start of the spring, Kill proclaimed unprompted that onlookers keep an eye on freshman punter Peter Mortell: "That name needs to stick with you a bit." Mortell made an impression Thursday, booting a 60-plus yard punt that elicited a spattering of cheers from his teammates.
• Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray was noticeably shaky at the start of Thursday's scrimmage, with a wobbly throw and a fumble on the offense's first two plays. His comfort level increased as practice continued. The offense found a steady flow in its no-huddle set, moving downfield with only minor issues.
"That was the first time we had done it all spring and I thought it was pretty good for the first time going out there," senior tight end John Rabe said.