HOUSTON - When Texas native David Cobb wondered aloud if he’d made a mistake by picking the Gophers and a new coaching staff that seemed to critique his every move, his father offered calm assurances.
Caesar Cobb is a retired Army lieutenant and a former professor of military science at Alcorn State University. He and his wife, Nina, raised two older sons who became college football players, so they’d seen it all before.
“I knew what the coaches were doing,” Caesar said. “I told him his time would come.”
Cobb had rushed for 2,946 yards as a three-year starter at Ellison High School in Killeen, Texas. But he rushed for only 57 yards as a freshman with the Gophers and carried only once for 8 yards as a sophomore.
Last year, when the Gophers went to Houston for the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech, Cobb’s family held a reunion. His older brother, Daniel, was on Texas Tech’s roster but didn’t dress for the game. Cobb’s duties were limited to kickoff coverage.
“It’s not embarrassing, but that’s kind of how it felt,” David Cobb said. “You go to a college, and [family members] expect you to play, and you don’t really touch the field. In the back of your mind, you just really want that one opportunity, but it just never comes.”
The opportunity finally arrived this season, and Cobb took full advantage, becoming the Gophers first running back to top the 1,000-yard mark since Amir Pinnix in 2006. Minnesota is back in Houston for Friday’s Texas Bowl, this time against Syracuse, and Cobb is expected to play a vital role.
Of the 125 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Syracuse is the only team yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Cobb had six such games this season, and the Gophers can’t wait to see what he can do against the Orange.
“He’s worked very hard,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “It’s a great lesson for our young players that sometimes you just don’t get everything in life right now. You have to earn it and work for it.”
A foot in the door
Cobb’s determination to make his mark as a college running back stems from a childhood growing up in Texas, Mississippi and even Germany.
He was born in Killeen, Texas — about 200 miles northwest of Houston — before the family moved to Gloster, Miss. Caesar Cobb had played running back briefly at Alcorn State before enlisting in the Army, and his three sons were all drawn to football.
The oldest, Caesar Jr., went on to play at Alcorn State. The middle son, Daniel, transferred from Texas Tech to Louisiana Tech this year, and the linebacker wound up leading the Bulldogs with 82 tackles and 12 tackles for loss.
“One brother is four years older, and the other is two years older, and David always tried to keep up with them,” Caesar Cobb said. “That definitely gave him some toughness.”
When David was in elementary school, the family moved overseas while his father was stationed in Vilseck, Germany.
“The first year there, my three boys played soccer; they didn’t have any football over there,” Caesar Cobb said. “So the next year we formed a Pop Warner tackling football league.”
Eventually, the Cobbs returned to Killeen, near Fort Hood. This allowed Cobb and his brothers to play at the highest level of Texas high school football — 5A — at Ellison, and each of them thrived.
As a 5-11 running back, David Cobb wasn’t flooded with Division I scholarship offers, but Stanford was among the schools that showed interest. Kill’s staff had just been hired at Minnesota, so Cobb wound up committing eight days after national signing day.
“We kind of got on him late because we got here late,” Kill said.
Kill asked Cobb at the time if he’d be willing to play another position, such as safety.
“I told him ‘Yes sir,’ but in the back of my mind, I wanted to play running back,” Cobb said. “I just had to get my foot in the door.”
Hanging onto his job
Cobb played on special teams as a freshman and started making inroads as a running back before injuring his hamstring. His lack of playing time as a sophomore wasn’t injury-related. He was simply buried on the depth chart.
The coaches felt Cobb had as much talent as any running back on the team, but he had a lot of maturing to do.
“If I took the wrong step, Coach Kill pointed it out in a team meeting,” Cobb said. “It was like they never compliment you on the good things, but he just never gave up on me.
“He always told me he was pushing me for a reason and that if he didn’t care about me, he wouldn’t push me. At times, as a young player, you don’t understand that.”
Donnell Kirkwood led the Gophers with 926 rushing yards last year, but he sprained an ankle in this year’s season opener. Cobb helped fill the void and emerged as the team’s clear No. 1 running back after Rodrick Williams Jr. suffered a turf toe injury.
Cobb has played through a shoulder injury that might require offseason surgery, multiple hip pointers and assorted other bruises. In the regular-season finale at Michigan State, he got spiked on the right knee, but still finished with 27 carries for 101 yards.
“My knee got busted open, and it was just dripping, and I had a lot of meat and skin just hanging off,” Cobb said. “I told them to wrap it up and we’ll just deal with it later, but there’s no way I’m letting another person have that opportunity.”
Cobb’s family held another reunion in Houston this week. His first cousin, Damien Wilson, has emerged as the Gophers’ starting middle linebacker, and between the two cousins, they’ll have more than 40 friends and family members at the game.
Afterward, they’re headed to Mississippi, where Cobb hopes to kick back and celebrate.
“Only if we win, though,” he said. “If we don’t, it’ll be a long ride.”