The Gophers’ depth at running back improves each day Donnell Kirkwood shows off the shuffle and cut that nearly produced 1,000 yards in 2012.

It took another step in that direction during Thursday’s closed scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium. Running backs coach Pat Poore said Kirkwood had several good runs in the red zone, including a 10-yard burst through the middle set up by a shuffle and cut.

Poore is convinced he’s starting to see signs of the same running back who led the team in rushing in 2012.

“He’s real close. His first step is better. I see it in his feet, his jump cuts. He’s got a burst back to him,” Poore said.

Kirkwood finished his redshirt sophomore season 74 yards shy of the Gophers’ first 1,000-yard season since 2006. Expectations were high heading into 2013 until Kirkwood injured an ankle in the season opener. He missed two games and was never the same upon his return. He finished the season with 52 carries for 120 yards. Meanwhile, David Cobb seized the No. 1 running back job and rushed for 1,202 yards.

An offseason surgery appears to have rejuvenated Kirkwood, a fifth-year senior. He said he hasn’t felt this healthy since coming in as a freshman.

“I’m 100 percent recovered from the surgery. I can finally open up at the beginning of practices,” he said. “It feels good to be part of [workouts] and not worried about going out and hurting something.”

Though Kirkwood might be at the bottom of the running backs depth chart for the Aug. 28 season opener, his long and injury-plagued career taught him to appreciate options. He said he’s not worried about fighting for carries with fellow running backs Cobb, Rodrick Williams and Berkley Edwards but is excited about the versatility of the group.

“I feel like he’s the same hard runner he’s always been,” Williams said about Kirkwood. “If anything, he’s gotten better. He’s had a couple bang-ups, but Kirkwood is pretty tough.”

Elevated target

Tight end coach Rob Reeves has big plans for the Gophers’ biggest target. Nate Wozniak’s long, 6-10 frame will be in the mix because of his improved catching ability and the reach he can offer quarterback Mitch Leidner.

“He’s a fighter, he’s physical, and he’s also, each day, taken a step as a ball-catcher and going and getting [the football],” Reeves said after Thursday’s scrimmage. “He’s going to be a big part of the game plan without a doubt.”

Wozniak is one of five redshirt/true freshman tight ends already making an impact, Reeves said. Jerry Gibson, Brandon Lingen and Nick Hart are getting up to speed quickly, Reeves added, and should help fill the void created when redshirt sophomore Duke Anyanwu was lost for the season because of a knee injury

Leidner on point

The Gophers’ last big scrimmage of preseason camp produced several highlights worth noting.

Center Tommy Olson said Leidner threw two touchdown passes — one to Maxx Williams and one to Drew Goodger.

“Mitch really had a good day throwing the ball,” Olson said. “I was really happy with our passing game, and the running game — we do pretty well most of the time with our running game. It seems like we threw the ball a little bit more [on Thursday], and we really had a good day throwing. I was really happy for Mitch.”

 

Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this report.