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Updated: August 19th, 2012 9:46am
Sandell: Running back rotation still an area of contention for Gophers

Sandell: Running back rotation still an area of contention for Gophers

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Less than two weeks removed from the Gophers' season opener at UNLV on Aug. 30, coach Jerry Kill insists he hasn't settled on a rotation at running back.

How carries will be distributed this season is up to debate, but what has been made obvious halfway through fall camp is that onlookers can expect to see a variety of faces in the "U" backfield.

Junior college transfer James Gillum and redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood front a position battle at running back that Kill is still calling a "six-man race."

There is large element of unpredictability within the running back corps. Regardless of who tops the Gophers' rushing list, the yards will be coming from an unproven group from top to bottom.

The Gophers have not had a running back pass the 1,000-yard threshold since Amir Pinnix tallied 1,272 yards in 2006 under former coach Glen Mason.

Don't expect that to change this season. Barring an unforeseen breakout year by one of the six players in the mix, it is safe to assume the workload at running back will be primarily by committee.

Kill is used to spreading carries around. In his second season at Southern Illinois in 2004, he had five running backs handle 30 attempts or more, with future NFL standout Brandon Jacobs and Arkee Whitlock sharing time in the No. 1 slot, combining for 1,951 yards on 301 total carries.

Though the talent at his disposal has fluctuated, his group philosophy has not been altered much. Led by Chadd Spann's 1,388 yards (258 attempts), Kill had four running backs in his final season at Northern Illinois (2010) shoulder 30-plus carries.

Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have had restructure and rebuild their rushing attack with the Gophers. The "U" offense was an unquestionable mess in 2011. Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was in his first year under center, tried to overcompensate for the team's team lack of a viable passing game and dearth of options at running back by accounting for more than half of the Gophers' total rushing yards (966 of 1,920).

Gray will still be vital to the Gophers' ground game, but increased production from the tailbacks is a necessity for the team to have any chance at taking some of the pressure off their quarterback.

Gillum, a touted newcomer from Mississippi Gulf Community College, has met expectations so far. The Gophers brought in the durable and shifty all-around back to add depth at the top end of the group. He hasn't shocked anyone in camp, but his reviews have been positive and he has done nothing to dissuade the coaching staff that he can handle a large chunk of responsibility.

Kill has had success with importing junior college talent at his previous stops. Since Gillum signed with the Gophers in December, there has been a steady level of confidence that he can continue that trend. However, without a firm sample size projecting how Gillum will fare against upgraded defenses on a game-to-game basis is virtually inconceivable.

Kirkwood is the unit's most "seasoned" option. That's not saying much when his 229 rushing yards last season stands as the most out of the Gophers' three returning running backs, along with David Cobb and Devon Wright.

But Kirkwood isn't the same back he was a year ago. Hamstring issues have slowed the bulky 5-foot-10, 219-pound sophomore throughout his career. Until recently, Kill's staff couldn't get a good read on Kirkwood since he was frequently sidelined in practice. So far, his hamstrings have held up and as a result he is earning recognition from coaches for his consistency.

"I think Donnell has had a very good camp to this point," Kill said. "This is the first time he's been able to make it this far in camp. I think he really worked hard to learn the game. He's gained some confidence too. I can't think of too many times I've raised my voice towards him at all, so I think he's mature a lot."

Health is the main obstacle that could prevent him from challenging Gillum for a high numbers carries this season. Kill said he worries "everyday" about the longevity of Kirkwood's hamstrings.

Fear of another injury commonly frequents Kirkwood, but he feels he has his conditioning in check enough to prevent any flare-ups.

"I'm not going to lie, it's always in my mind," he said. "But that's why I take care of it before practice. I'm in the training room riding a bike, I'm stretching, doing some hamstring preventions. I can't let it hinder me, because if I don't give it a full go out here they are going to be on me in film."

Last season, Kirkwood could be seen taking the hand-off, immediately heading for an opening and trying to bruise his way forward. There is still a distinct physical edge to his running style, though now he is notably more conscious about where his blockers are taking him.

Kirkwood's main contribution to the offense may not come in terms of rushing yards. His size and strength makes him a prime blocking resource in the backfield. The Gophers can use him as a decoy to help fuel production on the ground from elsewhere.

"That's one of the criteria we have. Obviously being a good guy with the ball in your hands is important, but you also have to be a dependable guy in blocking," Limegrover said. "We don't want another guy carrying the ball to be in the line of peril. Those backs need to understand how important they are to that scheme of things."

Gillum and Kirkwood's reps in camp have come with the first team, while Cobb and Wright are being frequently used with freshmen K.J. Maye and Rodrick Williams with the second and third units.

Cobb isn't lacking on practice highlights. For the past year, he has routinely busted off big gains in scrimmages. Whether that can be translated into an actual game is the question. Like Kirkwood, Cobb's advantage comes from his size -- 5-foot-11, 220-pounds - that allows him to power his way up the middle.

Wright, on the other hand, is more of speed and finesse back, with the ability to quickly gain yards. However, the redshirt sophomore's maturity is questionable, making it unlikely that he is ready yet to be more than a role player.

Little was known about Maye, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound former quarterback before camp began. Tagged by Kill as a "tremendous surprise," Maye has suddenly thrust himself into the running back discussion. He is easily one of the fastest options in the group. His speed is combined with precise field vision and an agility level that makes him hard to catch.

Once thought to be a potential redshirt candidate, it is looking more and more like Maye will be factored in right away. He is durable enough that can be used on occasion as an inside receiver.

Williams rounds out the group. Though he's a long-shot to see the field in his first year, it remains a possibility. Kill said earlier in the week he was closing in on the conclusion that Williams would be redshirted, but his strong showing in the last several practices has made the coaching staff second-guess themselves.

If the Gophers can get a passable output, at minimum, from at least four of their running backs, it seems shortsighted and unnecessary to remove the redshirt from both of their freshmen.

Saturday's scrimmage, Kill said Friday, was planned to be a large determining factor in sorting through the team's middle to lower tier rushing options as the first team offense, which includes Gillum and Kirkwood, was expected to see only limited snaps.

The Gophers aren't developed enough to expect a dynamic jump in production from their running backs. The safe bet to win the Gophers' rushing title in the season ahead is still Gray, but he needs help if the offense wants to see even minimal improvements. If Gillum and Kirkwood stay healthy they are likely to be No. 1 and No. 2 at tailback, with the rest of the unit filling specific roles.

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