James Gillum excels, his junior college coach says, at finding gaps and bursting through them.
The Gophers would like Gillum to do something slightly different: take a huge hole in their roster and fill it. Gillum is one of at least five junior college players who tentatively have agreed to transfer to Minnesota for next season, according to recruiting websites.
"James is a Big Ten back. I can see him being a 1,000-yard rusher up there," said Steve Campbell, who coached Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to a 10-2 record this season. "He can get you the tough yards. He's going to break a lot of tackles there. He can put up some numbers."
Numbers are a problem for the Gophers, which is part of the reason Gillum and his fellow juco players are being recruited by coach Jerry Kill. His predecessor, Tim Brewster, did the same thing.
"It's typical, when you have a new staff, to make jucos a priority because you're looking for your kind of player, someone who fits your style, and can play right away," said Zach Johnson, publisher of Gopher Illustrated, a site that closely monitors Minnesota recruiting.
Kill has been fretting over the uneven distribution of talent in his locker room for almost a year now. His challenge during this and the next couple of recruiting seasons is not only to entice talented players to Minneapolis, but also to juggle some distressing math.
If a typical college football team uses 40 impact players per season -- starters on both sides of the ball, a handful of specialists, and backups to cover the normal pace of injuries -- the ideal squad would include something like 16 seniors, 12 juniors, eight sophomores and four freshmen. That keeps veterans in place at most spots, while fresh talent gets a chance to develop behind them. Thanks to the turnover in coaches and the unusually high attrition rate of the 2008 recruiting class, the Gophers' 40 most important players this year arguably included 15 seniors, six juniors, six sophomores and 13 freshmen.
"We don't have any classes in between there. Look at the roster -- it's empty," Kill said about the odd configuration, which will leave him with a severe shortage of upperclassmen next season.
Risk vs. reward
Kill has said several times that he is wary of junior-college players, in part because of the academic risk some pose, and because it's difficult to adequately train newcomers quickly and expect them to play right away.
"You bring in a few kids and sprinkle them in, but you've got to be selective and make sure it's the right fit," Kill explained before the season about his junior-college philosophy. "You've got to make sure they're serious about getting an education, because if they flunk out, you lose that scholarship and your APR goes down. You can't take too many risks."
So far, the Gophers have deemed the risk worthwhile for a five juco players, by Gopher Illustrated's count, and it's no coincidence they coincide with the team's thinnest positions: three defensive backs, a wide receiver and a running back.
Briean Boddy, who committed earlier this month, is a cornerback from Wilmington, Del., who wasn't heavily recruited out of high school. He went to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College to get noticed, Johnson said, and it paid off. Even better, Boddy will have four years to play three seasons at Minnesota, making him more valuable. Same for Isaac Fruechte, a Caledonia High School graduate who played at Rochester Community and Technical College in 2010, then redshirted last year.
Jeremy Baltazar is a two-year starter at Blinn (Texas) Community College who can play cornerback or safety, a position of real need for the Gophers. Athens (Texas) Trinity Valley Community College cornerback Martez Shabazz recently de-committed from Baylor and is slated to join the Gophers.
An impact back?
Then there's Gillum, who has been recruited by Kill's staff for nearly four years. Assistant coach Jay Sawvel recognized his talent while at tiny Pearl River High, where he gained nearly 6,000 yards, but Gillum didn't have the grades to enroll at Northern Illinois. Saw- vel and Kill helped steer the 6-foot, 200-pound back to Mississippi Gulf Coast -- where he helped the Bulldogs go 20-4 over two seasons -- in hopes of bringing him north this winter.
Gillum gained 1,297 yards as a freshman, then added 1,047 this year despite suffering a severe high ankle sprain in the season's third game. Campbell compared him to Vick Ballard, a former Bulldogs running back recently named second-team All-SEC.
"He played on a bad wheel for most of the rest of the season. That's a tough kid," Campbell said. "He got his academics in order by working hard, and [Minnesota] just outrecruited everybody. They're getting a good one."