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Updated: August 17th, 2014 1:35pm
Sandell: David Cobb has earned his keep at RB, but Gophers have depth

Sandell: David Cobb has earned his keep at RB, but Gophers have depth

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Entering his senior season, David Cobb holds the top spot in the Minnesota's stable of running backs.

It's quite the change for Cobb, who a year ago had played in only eight games across two seasons. But an injury to Donnell Kirkwood opened the way for Cobb and he finally unleashed the potential the coaching staff had insistently raved about for months. Cobb headlined the Gophers' suddenly formidable rushing attack (fifth in the Big Ten, 195.2 ypg), as he became Minnesota's first 1,000-yard rusher in seven years with 1,202 yards - the 12th-most in program history.

Cobb has earned praise in the build-up to the 2014 season, but can he replicate that same performance level in the year ahead?

The potency of Minnesota's run game caught a few opponents off guard last season. That won't be the case this time around.  With their passing game still widely unproven, the Gophers need another strong campaign from their budding crew of running backs.

So far, Cobb appears to have fully embraced the pressure that comes with trying to follow up a breakout year.

"He's playing with a lot more confidence," running backs coach Pat Poore said. "You can see it in his tempo. You can see it in his vision. He's very comfortable with what he's doing assignment-wise and what people are doing in schemes ... Physically, he's put the work in. He's explosive."

--The Gophers have several capable options behind Cobb who will get their share of playing time.

If you were to rank the Gophers' running back rotation at this juncture, junior Rodrick Williams would likely come in at No. 2 - the most probable successor to Cobb if injuries or performance become a factor. Williams put up 332 yards as a sophomore, with a bruising rushing style that provided a good change of pace next to Cobb.

Williams was a liability at times in passing blocking situations. That became a major area of focus for the 5-foot-11, 245-pound back in the spring and summer.

"I feel like I've gotten better," Williams said. "Last year, I may have picked up a block, but my hands would get outside the shoulders. So I've been working a lot on keeping my hands inside."

--Redshirt senior Donnell Kirkwood, the Gophers' rushing leader in 2013 (926 yards), had a junior year to forget after suffering an ankle injury in the season opener. Although he only missed two games, he never fully recovered.

Offseason surgery seems to have been what he needed, as Kirkwood looks to be showing glimmers of his pre-injury form. Poore was happy with what he saw from the senior tailback in Thursday's scrimmage in which he pulled off a couple nice run, including a 10-yard push in the redzone.

"His first step is better," Poore said. "I see it in his feet, his jump-cuts, those kinds of things. He's got a burst back to him."

What Kirkwood's role on offense will be this season remains to be seen, especially given the depth available in the backfield. Apart from his leadership qualities, Kirkwood is one of the better blockers the Gophers have at running back, which could be enough to give him plenty of chances to see the field.

--Berkley Edwards was on track to enter the RB rotation as a true freshman before an ankle injury in fall camp forced him to take a redshirt. Now, Edwards, whose high-end speed and athleticism has earned him a strong dose of hype, is primed to finally make his debut.

For the moment, Edwards is being integrated into the offense with a focus on using him primarily in the passing game.

In high school, he was rarely used as a receiving option. As a result, Edwards, the younger brother of former NFL receiver Braylon Edwards, has worked extensively to better develop his catching abilities. After most practices in fall camp, Edwards has stayed on the field to take 50 reps off the JUGS machine.  Becoming better at reeling in a pass is something he said he has taken seriously, because "that's probably going to be most of my role this year."

Edwards has the rising potential to eventual become the Gophers' top running back, but factoring him in more as a part of the passing attack this year will allow the redshirt freshman to gain more playing time right away.

"I think he's a good every-down back, but he's also a guy who if he can get on the edge and you can get him a touch in space, he's got a chance to make an explosive play," Poore said. 

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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