'U' RB Rodrick Williams can run, but blocking skills still developing
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A year ago, Rodrick Williams Jr. came into fall camp as an immensely raw, big-bodied running back, who had little idea if he would play at all as a freshman.
Some that rawness is still present, even after being thrust in as the Minnesota Gophers' No. 2 running back for the final eight games of 2012 season. But knowing expectations are for him to have a key impact in the "U" backfield in the year, Williams is trying to make sure his development doesn't take a step back.
"At this time last year I wasn't real comfortable at all," Williams said. "I wasn't too sure on pass protections or stuff like that. Now, (the coaches) have been on me, basically forcing me to study ... I feel a lot more comfortable now. I've haven't messed up too much in practice."
With coach Jerry Kill preaching a renewed focus on power, run-heavy football, the Gophers need physical running backs to do that. Williams fits that idea. At 5-foot-11 and 245-pounds, the Lewisville, Texas native can run downhill and take on opposing tacklers. He totaled 261 yards off 57 carries last season.
But Williams' weakness remains in pass blocking situations. Williams was so much of a liability blocking-wise in 2012 that teams were easily keying in on him to run whenever in was in the game. The Gophers had to keep him out of passing downs, sticking instead with top running back Donnell Kirkwood.
Williams has heard the same refrain that Kirkwood reiterated after practice this week: "If you can't block, you can't play." Williams knows he has to improve, and in the offseason he focused on studying game film and getting a better handle on the offense.
As the Gophers reach the one-week point of camp, Kirkwood has seen the upgrades starting to take hold for Williams.
"Last year, he was more just a running back," Kirkwood said. "He just ran. I came in on passing downs. But now (pass blocking) is more of emphasis with him. He's harping on that more. He's trying to get that right. You can tell he's trying to make a change about it.
Kill, however, made it clear Williams still has a steep learning curve to overcome.
"He's working at it," Kill said bluntly. "Still has to work at it, but he's working at it."
How quickly Williams continues to develop his versatility will determine where he fits into the Gophers' long-term plans at running back this season. The bulk of his reps so far have been with Kirkwood and the first team offense. But junior David Cobb and freshman Berkley Edwards are very much in the mix to grab playing time.
"They all know how to run, but can they help protect the passer?" Kill said. "As a running back it isn't an easy thing to do, but it makes you a lot of money if you can do it. I think (Williams) understands that."