Sandell: David Cobb reentering the Gophers' running back discussion
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MINNEAPOLIS -- David Cobb spent the first two years of his collegiate career largely relegated to a position into the background of the Minnesota Gophers' running back discussion.
Donnell Kirkwood's solid 926-yard season as the Gophers' primary tailback last season, and freshman Rodrick Williams Jr.'s mid-year emergence as a suitable No. 2 option, kept Cobb on the wrong end of the depth chart.
But nearly three weeks into the Gophers' spring practice sessions, Cobb's name is starting to gain some noticeable weight around the "U" coaching staff. Seemingly the odd man out at one point, Cobb has reentered the picture as a viable candidate in the competition at running back.
"No disrespect to any of the other kids, but as an overall athlete he is the best athlete that we have, for that size, that speed," Gophers running backs coach Brian Anderson said. "He has to just mature as a football player."
Hype is synonymous with spring football.
The "bigger, faster, stronger" mentality, and the ceaseless optimism that comes with, flanks teams throughout the spring as they prepare for a season still five months away. Any discussions about the expectations of an unproven player have to be looked through a filter of skepticism.
However, after biding his time through a pair of disappointing, underachieving seasons, Cobb seems to be morphing into a player that could back up the increasing praise he has been earning.
"It's a growing up process," coach Jerry Kill said. "Some kids come in and they're not ready to mature as quick as others ... His focus has been different. I credit him, because his offseason focus to this point has been good."
Cobb isn't unfamiliar with hype.
Brought in as a late addition to Kill's first recruiting class in 2011, Cobb, a charismatic and explosive tailback from Killeen, Texas, garnered a surprising amount of attention on first look as a freshman in fall camp.
A raw mixture of athleticism, heightened field vision and a multitude of highlight worthy runs in practice marked Cobb as a possibility to share carries with senior Duane Bennett. But as his initial season progressed, he played in just three games and picked up 57 yards off 10 carries. His lack of production was unfortunate, but the Gophers' backfield was so thin that the coaching staff felt it couldn't afford redshirting him.
Last season, Cobb was taken out of the mix at running back almost entirely, shifting into a spot on special teams in the latter part of the year. He recorded one carry - a eight-yard run in a lopsided loss at Iowa.
Apart from the hamstring troubles that had slowed him down, the mental side of the game, both on the field and off it, hadn't fully caught up with Cobb's physical abilities. He struggled to produce a consistent effort, lacking the reliability of the players who had developed faster than him.
Cobb was tired of the disappointment, tired of not meeting expectations, most of which were self-imposed. In several of moments of reflection in the offseason, Cobb's mindset began to evolve.
"Growing up these last two years, you kind of realize that 'Hey, two years down, you did a lot of learning, but now it's time to step up and help your team out any way you can," Cobb said.
"You come to college you want to play. You don't want to waste any years sitting on the bench. But at the same time it humbles you."
The differences that can be sensed in Cobb go beyond the 15 pounds he has put on since his freshman year.
When answering questions about his perceived development, the 5-foot-11, 225-pound back speaks with a grounded confidence. He doesn't let his words venture into hyperbole or cockiness. He knows he hasn't accomplished anywhere near enough to warrant a bloated sense of confidence. He recognizes his faults and knows up to this point he hasn't matched the potential his physical prowess suggests is possible.
Cobb has looked determined so far in spring practice, temporarily setting aside his reputation as a source of comedic relief in the locker room for two hours a day. When given the chance to take reps behind Kirkwood and Williams, he has quietly displayed his balance of power and speed.
"When David gets the ball in his hands, as far as his vision, he may very well have the best vision of any of our running backs," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "As far as seeing things, making cuts, finding that little bit that maybe somebody else didn't know was going to be there. He has a great knack for that."
Cobb's early jump back into the outlook at running back comes with a caveat. Like any team, the Gophers have fallen victim to overhyping a player before.
Now-senior James Gillum, a standout on the junior college level, arrived last season with the expectation from several coaches that he would take over the No. 1 spot in a wide-open completion at running back.
Gillum never came close to matching the acclaim that had been dolled his way in spring ball and early on in fall camp. Gillum was overwhelmed by the transition to the FBS level, worn down from a hard push in pre-season practices and a battle with minor injuries. He went on to play in only five games, with 73 rushing yards (27 carries) to his name.
It's impossible to determine if Cobb can validate the praise, but it is more realistic to think that he could be factor in on offense in the upcoming season than it was to expect Gillum to seize top billing at tailback in his first year.
Cobb is turning heads on the coaching staff, but it comes with the understanding that he has to prove he can play this way on a day in and day out basis.
"The one thing I can say is that David has been more consistent," Limegrover said. "Can I say right now if that's consistent enough to be a guy that we can really count on? I can't say that yet. It's going to be a continuous process, but I can say that he is one of the guys who continually comes up as the guy who is making progress in that area. "
How the Gophers intend to use him next season remains to be determined. Siphoning carries away from Kirkwood and Williams will be difficult for Cobb.
When Gillum took a step back on the depth chart last fall, Kirkwood moved to the forefront for the majority of the season. Despite a history of hamstring issues, Kirkwood started in all 13 games and was responsible for 67.2% of carries (218 of 324 attempts) among the "U" running backs in 2012.
The Gophers removed Williams' redshirt six games into the season and inserted him as backup for Kirkwood. With a bruising power style similar to Kirkwood, Williams ran for 261 yards in eight games.
Kirkwood, one of the most experienced members of the youthful Gophers offense, has done nothing in spring practice to suggest that he will yield his starting spot before the season begins. Williams is more of a wildcard, facing the task of building upon the measured success he had as a freshman.
It would be a risky move to entrust Cobb with a major upgrade in responsibilities in the run game right away. If he does move up the depth chart and nab a share of carries, the evolution is likely to occur gradually. Cobb could work well as a compliment to Kirkwood as he is equipped with a more all-around running style.
In order to earn playing time in the backfield, Cobb has to show he can be reliable when not being handed the football. As he freely admits, Cobb was a liability as a pass blocker in his first two seasons. He has improved in that area, but it will continue to be a lingering concern until the season begins.
Cobb will also have to fend off incoming freshman Berkley Edwards, who was a highlight of the Gophers' 2013 recruiting class. A consistent showing by Cobb could lessen the Gophers' need to use Edwards and make a redshirt season a favorable option.
Although Kirkwood and Williams worked as a capable duo in 2012, the Gophers have yet to establish a consistent running attack in two years under Kill. They had five games last season in which they failed to rush for more than 106 yards, including a four-yard total against Michigan State.
In a glimpse at what may be possible for this offense, the Gophers' best performance came in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. While the Gophers lost, 34-31 to Texas Tech on a last-second field goal, their offense woke up thanks to a heavy output from their run game. Mixing carries between Kirkwood and Williams, as well as quarterbacks Philip Nelson and MarQueis Gray, the Gophers ran the ball on 44 of their 71 plays and put up 222 yards rushing.
Production of that level has to become more of the norm for the Gophers. With a lackluster receiving corps, Minnesota cannot improve upon their 6-7 record from 2012 without a well-established ground attack.
Cobb can aid the Gophers by equipping them with situational help at running back. The most realistic case is that Cobb will begin the year third behind Kirkwood and Williams, but will have a starting role on special teams. As the season goes on, his opportunities to up his carries could increase if he stays on the upward track he has shown in spring practice.
Cobb has a mature take on the situation, happy just at the possibility of having impact in the season ahead.
"I just want to come in and play my role," Cobb said. "If I can make a big play here and there I'll do that. If I can be a third down back, a first down back, whatever I can bring to the table I'm willing to do ... Wherever I fall in line at I'm fine with."