Gophers' Kirkwood sees the opening and takes it

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2011 - 1:55 AM

With the Gophers still tinkering with their running game, the redshirt freshman took full advantage of his first action of the season last weekend.

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Before last weekend the closest Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood had come to game action in 2011 was in the spring game.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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Donnell Kirkwood doesn't own a Cadillac, can't afford a Hummer, never has driven an 18-wheeler. And that's a shame. It means Kirkwood lacks a viable point of reference to describe how wide the hole was Saturday that he jogged through en route to his first touchdown as a Gopher.

"It was a really big hole, really big," the redshirt freshman said of the front-yard-sized gap that opened in the Miami (Ohio) defensive line early in the second quarter. "I've probably never been through a hole that big."

It was so big, BTN analyst and former Gophers coach Glen Mason exclaimed on the air, "Now that's Minnesota football!" as Kirkwood was congratulated for his score. And it's certainly what offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has in mind for a Gophers rushing attack that hasn't ranked better than seventh in the Big Ten since Mason was coach.

"Sometimes everything comes together just perfectly, and you break a big one," Limegrover said. "Our job is to try to make that happen a lot more often."

Actually, Kirkwood's scoring romp wasn't a big one yardage-wise, because he crossed the goal line after only 4 yards. But it's not difficult to imagine that the barrel-chested freshman from Delray Beach, Fla., could have picked up another 20 yards on the play.

And that's part of the reason that Kirkwood appears, even after just one game, to be an emerging part of the Gophers offense.

"One of the things we really got on the guys last week was, we need to start going vertical in the run game. Everything was happening side-to-side," Limegrover said, crediting another redshirt freshman, guard Zac Epping, for helping change that tendency. "Kirkwood had it figured out. He was going to get that ball and, come hell or high water, he was going to go somewhere vertical because we had emphasized that all week."

That mindset earned Kirkwood, who never got on the field in the season's first two weeks, 13 carries against Miami. He got four in the second quarter for 12 yards and the touchdown, then seven in the third quarter, picking up 30 yards. He had two fourth-quarter carries for another 13 yards, giving him 55 in his 2011 debut -- more than any running back had picked up in a game this year.

It's not so much how many yards he had that was impressive, Limegrover said, but how he got them.

"It didn't always work out -- it's not as though he got 180 yards," the offensive coordinator said. "But the things he did, when you watch on film you go, 'Yes, now that's what we're looking for.'"

Accepts the blame

Kirkwood missed the last eight games of 2010 because of a hamstring injury (and was granted a redshirt do-over for the season), then reinjured himself during fall camp. But what really set him back, Kirkwood said, was how he spent the time away. Rather than tattooing the playbook to his brain, he simply rode a stationary bike and watched practice without a purpose.

When he was healthy again, the coaching staff discovered he didn't really grasp the blocking schemes, couldn't reliably recognize which blitzer to pick up, wasn't certain when to peel off for a bubble screen. "It's great to have a running back who can run the ball," Limegrover said, "but he needs to be able to block, too."

So while his teammates were preparing for USC and New Mexico State, Kirkwood was preparing simply to play, period. It made life awfully lonely on Saturdays, but he's honest about where the blame lies.

"The injury was 35 [percent of the reason he was benched], the rest was mental. When I was out, I could have been taking mental notes better than I was," Kirkwood admitted. "It was tough sitting out, but you can't blame anybody but yourself. I blame myself for not stretching [before being hurt]. I blame myself for not knowing the offense like I'm supposed to. It's on me, not anybody else."

Slowly, he learned, until Limegrover became more comfortable with his understanding of the offense. And with starter Duane Bennett, whose style suggests more of a sleek roadster to Kirkwood's dump-truck power, having trouble breaking into the open, Limegrover turned to the 19-year-old on short-yardage situations.

Which is how he found himself in the Gophers' huddle Saturday with the ball on the 4, receiving a prediction from the offensive line.

"They told me right before the play, just follow us, it'll be open," Kirkwood said. "I thanked them after the play for that hole. I wasn't touched. I probably could have" walked into the end zone.

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