Berkley Edwards has yet to play a real down for the Gophers, but the redshirt freshman running back’s potential impact has been a regular topic around Dinkytown for months.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we’ve been up here late at night because it’s all about getting Berkley the ball,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said in February, before spring practice opened. “But believe me when I tell you that we think he can be a weapon.”
Edwards showed it throughout spring camp. During the 12 practices that were open to the public, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Michigan native seemed to deliver at least one breakaway run per day, delighting onlookers.
The Gophers have a chance to showcase Edwards and the new dimension he brings to their offense during Saturday’s annual spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.
Of course, with Big Ten Network covering the event, coach Jerry Kill also will be careful not to reveal too much for opposing coaches’ video files. Kill’s primary goal is getting his team through the spring game healthy.
Last season, the Gophers had big plans for Edwards before he suffered a high ankle sprain late in training camp. It took Edwards several weeks to heal, so he redshirted, while David Cobb emerged as the team’s first 1,200-yard rusher since 2006.
Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, the team’s leading rusher from 2012, are both back as seniors, and junior tailback Rodrick Williams has had a strong spring, too. In practices, Cobb typically leads the first-team offense onto the field, but it isn’t long before Edwards is in the mix.
Asked last week if Edwards is the type of player who might get five to seven touches per game, Kill started chuckling.
“We’ll see,” Kill said. “He might need more touches.”
Kill said Edwards reminds him of Chad Spann, who rushed for 1,388 yards and 22 touchdowns under Kill’s staff as a senior at Northern Illinois in 2010. The 5-9, 200-pound Spann spent last season with the Houston Texans.
Edwards, whose father, Stan, and brother Braylon played at Michigan before going to the NFL, has the quickness and speed to get around the edge. Kill said he’s also been impressed with Edwards’ recent improvement “running the ball downhill.”
During one particular play in last Saturday’s scrimmage, Edwards took a handoff, made one cut to avoid a tackle and raced 50 yards for a touchdown.
“When you’ve got Berkley in the backfield, you never really know what’s going to happen,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “Like the play there, he breaks a tackle, and he’s gone. You’re off the field already. That’s what our offense really needs.”
Late last season, the Gophers suffered through a 13-quarter stretch without an offensive touchdown. That included eight quarters against the Big Ten’s two best defenses — Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Kill believes the Gophers offense will be better equipped this year because their personnel is more varied. Beyond Edwards, they’re building a stable of tight ends, including Maxx Williams, who can split out at wide receiver.
“All of a sudden you’re playing Michigan State, and you’re trying to run power football, and it’s tough going, so then you spread them out — and you’ve got really true personnel to do that,” Kill said. “[In previous years] we’ve only really had one personnel team so to speak.
“So we can run a lot of personnel groupings at you. You can change the game plan week to week.”
The Gophers lined up Edwards at wide receiver some this spring, too. Though they didn’t show it during the open practices, they are almost sure to use him on the jet-sweep play made popular by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
Edwards (like other Gophers freshmen, per Kill’s team rule) was unavailable to talk to the media this spring. But if he stays healthy, the spotlight should find him this fall.
“When you’re in the two-minute [offense], you’ve got a kid like Berkley, you can throw a swing pass, you can run the draw,” Kill said. “You need to go for it on fourth-and-1, here it comes. There’s a lot of things that we can do that we haven’t been able to do.”